Archive for the 'grace' Category

I’ve been finding my way back recently. It’s not been an easy journey. I have chronicled my journey here and elsewhere. The road has been crooked and confusing. The journey has been filled with missteps and sidesteps. My feet have been tangled in weeds and soaked from stepping in potholes deep enough to hold melted winter water.

Sometimes we grope in the darkness and hope for a helping hand. Sometimes the hand is clenched, fist-like, and lands squarely on our jaw.

Therefore, when I approach Scripture these days it is not without trepidation and fear and trembling. I used to be a ‘pro,’ but the Lord was convinced that I need to be demoted to the minor leagues. He demoted me in dramatic and startling fashion. I have had to find a way to know God when I don’t have to know God. It’s hard to know that water quenches thirst when it’s on tap, much easier to know it does when you are in a desert. Still, as I walk back to the life I was ushered from, I begin to find my way back to the pulpit. That is, I find myself able and wanting to talk about Scripture from a particular point of view: the pulpit.

The view from the pulpit will never be the same for me again in this life. And that is probably a good thing.

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The short letter to the church at Ephesus has, for reasons not entirely unknown to my heart, captured my attention anew in recent days. Last year, it was from reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. It was also due to a sermon series I heard at one of the two churches my family attends—the preacher did a masterful work exegeting Paul’s thoughtful, pastoral and prophetic words, bringing them to life inside the congregation.

I have realized much, lately, that I am hungry again. The letter to the church at Ephesus has startled my taste-buds like a fragrant and aromatic wine. It’s like tasting a sweet cake all over again for the first time. It’s like having an ice cold beer after cutting grass in the hot August sun. It’s like seeing my wife, gorgeous and majestic as she was, on our wedding day. It’s like waking up from a long illness and craving a tasty, sumptuous, and rich dinner. It’s like walking down the Emmaus Road hungry and finding oneself strangely satisfied, without ever having taken a bite, because Jesus was in our midst all along.

Do I have words to describe what water tastes like after walking thirsty across a desert for many, many days? What is a sound night’s sleep like after being awake for many days? What is a dreamless night after a year of nightmares? What is it like to finally beat up a bully who has been humiliating you day after day after day? What is it like to put on fresh socks after walking for miles barefoot on the jagged rocks? It’s like realizing again that our hunger is satisfied only by things we cannot feed ourselves. Taste and see, the Lord said. It’s no wonder he told us to taste and see. I gave up pop for Lent; water is delicious.

Yeah. That’s what Ephesians has been to me as I have awakened from my slumber and realized that Jesus has not been nearly as silent as I had previously thought.  I am hungry. I am thirsty. Ephesians has been good food, good drink, for me.

The other day, I was reading through chapter 1 again and I realized some important things about it. So I offer some tentative thoughts from chapter 1.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians, like pretty much all of the Bible, is about Jesus. It is really, truly difficult to avoid that idea. What I noticed is that God is working out a plan in Jesus. Read through these verses slowly and notice how many times he uses simple pronouns: he, him, his. Notice how often he talks of Jesus, writes his name, sings his praise. God has a lot to do through Jesus and he is doing it, has done it. God means to accomplish three main tasks as I see them here in chapter 1.

First, he means to bring us all together into complete unity (v 10). All things in heaven and earth under Christ. All of this is accomplished through the work of Jesus—this is his purpose in Jesus. Complete oneness of all God’s people, and all God’s places, in Jesus.

Second, he means to bring about our final redemption (v 14). And in the meantime, he has given us a promise, a seal, in the form of his Holy Spirit. Our redemption is through his blood (v 7).

Third, he means to once and for all, finally, to place all things under the feet of Jesus (v 21-22). This dominion begins with the church. We are the firstfruits of his rule and authority even though clearly all things are under his authority (Matthew 28)

That is brief and unfinished to be sure, and they should probably be expanded and finished. What is amazing is this: look how much the church is included in this work of God! Look at what he has done for us, how much he has included us in the mystery, how much he has invested in the church, how much authority he has given us already, how much he has promised us, and how he gone out of his way to make sure we are not entirely in the dark. We know what to expect of God, we know what his ambition and goal is: unity, redemption, dominion—all resulting and exalting God’s glory (‘to the praise of his glory’, 3, 6, 12, & 14).

I just finished reading David Platt’s as yet unpublished book Radical Together. He writes of what I believe is of utmost importance that many of our churches have yet to figure out here in this world (that’s not a blanket criticism, just a general observation based upon my own personal experiences in the church–and I’m probably limiting it to the Church of Christ/Christian Church). You see, the letter to Ephesus asks the church to be involved in some rather important and heady stuff—stuff we couldn’t plan, cannot finish, and cannot control. The letter also informs us that we have not been left helpless or powerless. Platt captures exactly my point:

As long as church consists of normal routines, and Christianity consists of nominal devotion with little risk, little sacrifice, and little abandonment, then we can do this on our own. But what happens when we give ourselves to something that is far greater than we can accomplish on our own? What happens when we dare to believe that God desires to use every one of our lives and every one of our churches to bring about kingdom advancement to the ends of the earth? We will find ourselves around every corner and at every moment dependent on his power and desperate for his grace as devote ourselves to his purpose. (129)

This is the God who calls us to abandonment and the freakishly terrifying idea of taking his Gospel to the masses of lost and hopeless people in this world. This is the God who gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that we ‘might know him better.’ And when we know him better, we clearly communicate Him to others. He has given us resurrection power to accomplish that very purpose that all things may one day be brought to complete unity, that one day he might finally redeem us, that one day all things might truly be brought under the power and rule and authority of Jesus—to the praise of his glory!

What’s so amazing is that God has included us in that plan. Amazing.

God does not involve us in his grand, global purpose because he needs us. He involves us in his grand, global purpose because he loves us…Let’s rise up together as selfless followers of a self-centered God, and let’s live—and die—like we believe our highest prize is his global praise. (Platt, 135)

To the praise of his glory.

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Those of you who read or write here are well aware of the fact that I am a huge, huge disciple of Eugene Peterson. Not in any sycophantic or worshipful way, but in the sense that he has been my pastoral mentor since I first ordained as a preacher nearly twenty years ago. When Eugene Peterson speaks (or mostly writes) I have a tendency to listen well. I trust his judgment because he is wise, learned, and has been a pastor all of his life. He understands people, especially those in Christ, and he listens well to what they say before he opens his own mouth. (One trait of Peterson’s that I have yet to master perfectly.)

When he endorses someone or something, it is not because he made a snap judgment, but because he has prayed through it. Peterson is not afraid to learn and grow (as is evidenced in writing his latest book, a memoir simply called The Pastor.)

So I happened to chance upon a short interview with Peterson here. And if we are willing to listen to what he says in the interview (only two small paragraphs or so), we might find he is saying something rather profound about the church–the church he has been a pastor in all his life. The interviewer, Timothy Dalrymple, asks Peterson: “What are your thoughts regarding Rob Bell’s book and the controversy it ignited?  What inspired you to endorse the book?” Peterson’s response is nothing short of beautiful:

Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister.  We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God.  And I don’t think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight.  I think that’s bad family manners.

I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says.  But I think they’re worth saying.  I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people.  I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.

I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement.  I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him.  He may not be right.  But he’s doing something worth doing.  There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal.  We’ve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way.

Now I fully realize that this conversation will be ruined because all we will want to talk about is whether Rob Bell is a heretic or not. Or we will find a way to mince Peterson’s words until he is saying something utterly different than what he is saying. But I want to make a larger point that may otherwise go unnoticed: There is something wrong with the church.

That is Peterson’s point. The church is not the place where we arrive. The church is a collection of misfits who do not fit into this world–who have been brought together by love. The church is a people who worship and rejoice and cry and struggle and hurt and suffer and live and love together. The church is a collection of people, ragamuffins, on a journey (which is one reason why I think the Bible constantly portrays God’s people on the move), but too often the church is seen as a place from which kings and queens pontificate. And Peterson is right about how such an attitude affects the church.

We get so caught up in the ‘who is right and who is wrong’ and the ‘who is in and who is out’ that we totally miss the struggle and the beauty of church. Who can scream the loudest? Who are the power-brokers? I laugh at the words ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’ because I don’t know that Bell was ever invited in in the first place. I never cease to be amazed at who believes they are the arbiters of inness and outness in the church. Maybe Rob should have tweeted back, ‘Farewell, John Piper.’ But I suspect, given what little I know of Rob, that he probably would have tweeted something like, ‘Grace and Peace, John Piper.’

Peterson said, “I Don’t think that brothers and sisters should fight.” I agree. That’s the way the world does things, not Jesus; not the church.

There may come a day when the church will become what it was born to be, but I suspect until that time comes, there will be a segment of the church that will continue to guard the doors with AK-47’s and M-16’s. They will welcome some and dismiss others; they will hire some and fire others; they will talk about grace and live by the sword; they will act like they are the head of the church, and not Jesus. They will say as much that they want to hear from God, but when he speaks they will cover their ears.

And those who want a simple church where they can hurt and suffer together, question and dialogue, journey and struggle, will be left out because they simply do not have it all together. And in today’s church, where aesthetic beauty triumphs over filthy catacombs, no one wants the ugly to mess up the pretty.

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Matthew 25: 31-46

Many a modernist evangelical, still caught in the culture wars and small-god systematics, loves to pull out the sheep and the goats metaphor when judging others. They do so, most often, when they are discerning who among the visible flock are true believers (sheep) and who are the pretenders, the modern-day heretics, the goats of the church. There are, of course, appropriate times to judge. Jesus was, after all, concerned about right belief… – but this post is not about those times.

Some judge while others mock those they believe are too concerned for things we call “social issues.” When it comes right down to it, they say, it’s all about getting people saved… not about drilling wells, educating heathens, or fair wages. And to some degree they are right…

…yet it is interesting.

When Jesus spoke of the final judgment and upon what it would be based – he did not speak of right beliefs, of right morality, or the right kind of music… he spoke of giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked. In the context of sheep and goat differentiation; having a heart for the poor, the oppressed, the least of these – is what allows us to discern the sheep. It is not about winning a culture war. It is not about fighting socialism. It is not about convincing homosexuals not to homo-sex. It’s not about ranting against liberalism. It’s not even about getting as many people as possible to repeat a sinners prayer.

As Tim Keller put it: “Jesus did not say that all this done for the poor was a means of getting salvation, but rather it was a sign that you already had salvation, that true saving faith was already present” (Generous Justice, pg. 53 [emphasis his]). The “test” for saving faith (in this case) was not a check-list of acceptable beliefs, or witnessing, or service within the church, or even the fruit of the Spirit… (all of which a vitally important). Instead he chose our attitudes toward and actions on behalf of the poor.

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In his book Practice Resurrection Eugene Peterson quotes a fellow named Herbert Butterfield who wrote a book called International Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Mr Butterfield wrote the following in that book:

“Let us take the devil by the rear, and surprise him with a dose of those gentler virtues that will be poison to him. At least when the world is in extremities, the doctrine of love becomes the ultimate measure of our conduct” (as quoted by Peterson, p 265).

This afternoon, I read through the short letter Peter wrote to those who were ‘scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bythinia.’ I have read through Peter’s letter several times, and I have preached through it more than once. I saw something this morning which made me do a double-take–maybe something I hadn’t seen before or had and wasn’t all that interested in. Either way, I saw it; I was caught.

Peter’s letter is normally exegeted in such a way that the exegete will be able to expound dutifully on the virtue of suffering as Christ suffered. That is to say, Peter wrote about how to suffer as a Christian. To be sure, Peter does write quite a bit about suffering—suffering in a variety of contexts and at the hands of a variety of people. If there is someone who can cause suffering for the believer, they have caught Peter’s eye and he has written of how the Christian can and should respond. All of this suffering we do is blended, in Peter’s letter, with both lengthy and pithy explanations and expositions of Jesus’ suffering. Somewhere in all five chapters Peter talks about Jesus’ suffering.

That is good.

But there is an undercurrent also in Peter’s letter that might be easily enough overlooked if we do not pay attention (as evidently I have done). It’s one of those ‘forest and trees’ things. Easily enough are we caught up in conversations about suffering and how we suffer and why we suffer and where we suffer and who is suffering and so on and so forth—and, we should not dismiss the suffering of Jesus which is the context in which all of it makes sense. The undercurrent in Peter’s letter is what we do for one another when we suffer. He begins in chapter 1, verse 8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Peter’s optimism shines out: Though you have not seen him, you love him. In light of Jesus’ suffering, we suffer and while we do we hold fast to our love of him. Jesus suffered. We suffer. We love Jesus whom we have not seen. It all makes good sense. We love Jesus. Yet Peter spends significantly small amount of time expanding on this love we have for Jesus and instead turns his attention back to people we do see, those people on earth who dress funny, who stink, who irritate us, who gossip about us, who live side by side with us in the congregation called the body of Christ—that is, those we suffer with every day. And his word for us is difficult.

I don’t think loving Jesus, whom we have not seen, is all that difficult. Peter must not think so or he would have expanded on it a bit more. It is loving those we live with that is difficult. It is the loving of those we have seen that is so confounding. Love one another, he writes, not just once, but nearly as often as he writes of the death and suffering of Jesus. And he starts right in, badgering us for our lack of love and compassion for one another: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22) In other words, “You are really good at doing things like staying pure in a funky, armpit kind of world. And you say you have sincere love for each other. Now do it! Get on with the business of loving each other, deeply, from a place inside of yourselves.” Most of us can keep rules all day long. Most of us can stay pure all day. But can we love each other? Will we?

Holiness is easy. Love is difficult. Yet Peter seems to believe the two are somehow intertwined, bound up together like Gollum and the Ring. Loving Jesus whom we cannot, have not, seen is a piece of cake. Loving one another whom we see every day—that’s another story. Holiness is important, no doubt. But what is holiness if we do not love one another deeply, from the heart? “This is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). “This” includes the admonition to ‘love one another.’ Loving one another is just as important as our born-againness, as the death of Jesus, as the resurrection of Jesus, as preaching, as prophecy—it’s a cardinal doctrine. Love one another.

He doesn’t let up either. “I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Great! Another passage about living pure and holy lives in the bowels of existence. No sweat! But he doesn’t stop: “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Well, what does fearing God and honoring the emperor have to do with the way I treat those who are my brethren in Christ? Seemingly nothing, except that it’s easy to fear God, it’s easy to respect the emperor, and it’s easy to show respect to ‘everyone.’ What is difficult is the loving of my brother and sister in Christ when the only motivation for doing so is because Jesus expects me to whether they love me back or not. Sometimes I wonder if we are not more threatened by those in the body than we are by those who are not.

I like how Peter sort of throws that in there. “Hmm…let’s see…respect EVERYONE, fear God, the emperor, laugh at Muppets, dance with clowns….oh, yeah, LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” It’s like he’s going to throw that in every chance he gets in order to remind us of what really matters. Holiness matters. Human authority matters. But you must not forget to love one another. If you succeed at loving God and honoring the emperor but fail at loving one another–well, you have not succeeded at all.

He doesn’t stop. In chapter 3 we learn that we will most certainly suffer in this world: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:13-14). But before all this, before he warns us of insults, evil, suffering, threats of violence, and all this he has the nerve to say: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8). The last thing he says is: Love one another. You are going to suffer. You are going to have bad days. You are going to be thrown under the bus by anyone and everyone in this world: Love one another.

The world is going to spit upon you every chance it gets; love one another. Treat each other right. You are going to have enough trouble in this world without going to all the effort to create it amongst yourselves. And this is the problem I have seen in every single church I have preached among. Churches do not really know how to love each other, and, frankly, no amount of exhortation from the pulpit or reading from the Scripture or praying in the closet seems to alter the simple fact that we, the body of Christ, do not know how to love each other.

Don’t think I’m preaching this from the loft, wearing a halo, and fluttering about with wings. I’m am chief among sinners here. Maybe we do not know how to love each other because we do not know how to suffer together, as a body? Maybe when one part suffers we are far too content to allow that one part to suffer alone or with the pastor or with their family. Maybe suffering needs to be more of a communal thing in the church—but we are too quick to abandon those who suffer, thus love is never truly cultivated and never truly matures among us. Maybe this is an American church phenomenon. Maybe churches in, say, Africa, where suffering takes place daily, do know how to love each other precisely because they have suffered together.

And still Peter doesn’t stop: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

“The point is that in the situation of persecution the one thing that matters above all else is love toward one another. It has to be a ‘deep’ love, but the English word doesn’t adequately convey the sense of the Greek ‘at full stretch.’ Why at full stretch? Because this love will be stretched to the limit by the demands made on it. Let us remind ourselves that Christian love means caring for other people in their needs and that such care will be accompanied by a growing affection for them. Many people are prepared to care for others; they are less ready to have affection for them and to demonstrate it. It requires love at full stretch to do this” (I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, 143).

It is inevitable that we will sin. It is probably even more inevitable that we will sin against one another. These sins, grievous and heinous as they are, can be forgiven. I don’t think this means that the person sinned against simply overlooks the offense. That doesn’t seem to square with other thoughts in the New Testament that we have a right, perhaps an obligation, to confront those who sin against us in order to either offer or obtain forgiveness. Rather, I think Peter is drawing on the imagery of the work of God:  God’s love covers a multitude of sins. The cross has been in every thought he has uttered in this letter, surely he is thinking of God’s great love. In other words, God forgives, we should too. And as God does not continue holding on to our sin once he has forgiven us, so too should we let go when we have forgiven or been forgiven by others. Whatever else ‘covers’ might mean, it surely means that the sins are no longer visible in some sense. They are forgotten, hidden, no longer a part of the memory or function of the relationship. Love conquers all. Love wins.

Love does this. Only love does this. Only because we love Jesus whom we haven’t seen are we able to love those whom we have seen. So as Peter wraps it up, he has one last charge for us: “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). In other words: demonstrate your deep, from the heart, sincere, compassionate, sin-covering love for one another by laying a big, wet sloppy one on each other. I suspect James would tell us not only to kiss the lovely and good smelling folks among us, but also the broken and smelly ones too.

We are not so cultured in our world where a kiss of affection and love is often shared among brethren. It’s not the way we roll. But I wonder if a handshake sort of misses the point? We shake the right hand of fellowship and carry a dagger in the left. I wonder if a hug is too phony. I wonder if a kiss gets at the root and heart of the matter. In a kiss we expose ourselves to all sorts of trouble—not least of which is sickness. A kiss, however, is intimate. It is necessarily sexual. A kiss necessarily exposes us to the one we share the kiss with. Just ask Judas or Caesar. Maybe Peter had in mind Judas who betrayed Jesus with such a kiss: “Don’t be like Judas and betray with a kiss. Let your kiss be one of love.”

Whatever the case may be, and it is possible that I am overstating the case, Peter’s charge here is definitely that our love be demonstrated. I don’t know how this gets accomplished in various cultures. I don’t know if a kiss is like foot-washing and merely a cultural thing we must adapt in some way. But I am fairly certain we must find a way to demonstrate, without hypocrisy, our love for one another.

Peter has covered a lot of ground here, right?

You are in the process of becoming holy, don’t forget to love each other while doing so or else your holiness will amount to nothing. (1 Peter 1:22).

You are living under strange conditions as foreigners and exiles, facing all sorts of strange masters and rulers, don’t forget to love one another which is just as important as living at peace with everyone else (1 Peter 2:17).

You are going to suffer in this life, here on this earth. You will have enough trouble on this earth without inviting it into your fellowship, so love one another; you need each other’s love when the world is destroying and hating you. (1 Peter 3:8).

You are anxiously awaiting the day to be revealed, to see how all of this will turn out in the end, but while you wait, there will be times when we sin against one another. In light of what we await, love one another and forgive. Deeply. (1 Peter 4:8).

And don’t forget to make certain that your love for one another is not merely in words or in thoughts. Demonstrate it, intimately, with a kiss of love. (1 Peter 5:14)

Jesus created the church to be a place, a people, who will support, strengthen, comfort, forgive and love one another while we are doing life together. As always the question remains: How am I perpetuating love and contributing to an atmosphere of love? Am I a  balm of healing or picking at scabs?

Peter’s letter amply describes and portrays the difficult world we live in, a world where we will have much trouble, but it is also the world where some have been marked by the cross of Jesus. We will have enough trouble in this world without being trouble for one another. And how else will we take the devil by the rear if we do not love one another?

Soli Deo Gloria!

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“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).

“Jacques Ellul insists that this resurrection life must be lived in this world, but at the same time he insists that the Christian ‘must not act in exactly the same way as everyone else. He has a part to play in this world which no one else can possibly fulfill.’” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 261)

Graduate school is a lot of fun. I am learning so much about achievement gaps, high-stakes testing, functional behavior assessments, response to intervention, No Child Left Behind, and more. I am learning about Bloom’s Taxonomy, KWL, Evidence Based Practice, content standards, teacher accountability, labor unions, graphic organizers, charter schools, magnet schools, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and…well, there are more ways for a human to be ‘broken’ than I could have ever imagined…and I could go on and on for a while. I have learned more than I thought I needed to know, and less than I probably need to know. Who would have thought that teaching children to read would be such a complicated ordeal?

Education is a serious enterprise in the United States. I am getting my money’s worth out of this experience and I am glad for it because I am spending a lot of money getting this education.

About 9 months ago or so, I began to realize something strange. It goes something like this. I am in school to learn about more than the multitude of variations of ASD that a child might have. I am learning about more than the thousands of children’s books published every year in the United States. I am learning about more than what is required to be a certified teacher in the state of Ohio (3 different praxis exams including HQT requirements for NCLB, comprehensive exams, 52 hours of graduate school, a semester of student teaching, a portfolio, and more).

You know what is scary? I have been learning about myself. You know what I realize? I’m ugly. I realize that I am pretty much un-fun. You know I have had to learn how to laugh and be the class clown again? I’m boring. I’m sensitive to rebuke. I Hate failure (I recently lost three points on an assignment; not happy). I’m jealous of the success of others. I’m impatient (the trip to Cleveland about kills me). I’m arrogant. There are a few people who are smarter than I am (I didn’t get the highest grade on a recent mid-term). I’m comfortable. I like leading, and not so much following. I like talking, and not so much listening. I like being in charge, and not so much taking orders. And, trust me, there’s more.

I am learning not just what is required of a teacher, but I am also learning the sort of teacher I do not want to be. This has been the most important lesson I have learned and not just from going to class at CSU, but also from working a part time job at a local school. And I realize, most importantly, that the teacher I do not want to be is a teacher who is not the things I just listed, above, that I am. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I’ll say it this way then: not having my own pulpit any longer is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is harder to lose a pulpit than it is to gain one.

What I have learned, though, is that those things I described above are the very things that I had become. I hate mirrors. I keep asking God, ‘Is it safe to land?’ He keeps saying, ‘Wait’ (which I suspect is God’s way of saying, ‘Oh, I have a few more revelations for you.”) As I look back on nearly fifteen years in the pulpit I realize that I had quite forgotten what it was to be a terrified 25 year old fresh out of Bible School and stepping into a pulpit for the first time. I had grown quite comfortable with my skills. Frankly, I had become impatient, arrogant, condescending, comfortable, boring, sensitive, jealous, boring, and un-fun. And more. You know what I forgot most? People. I did a lot of serving, but I think sometimes I did it so I could be up front, in charge, and not (always) because I loved people.

I forgot what it was like to work 60 hours a week and have to get up on Sundays to worship. I forgot what it was like to have visitors in town and want to stay up late Saturday thus necessitating an absence on Sunday. I had quite forgotten that most people do not have Bible College educations and even less have seminary educations. I forgot to be with people and their hurt. I forgot what it was like to serve because I was called to and not because I was paid to. I used to complain that the money I was paid tied me down, bound my hands and prevented service, real service. As I look back I realize it did so, but not in a way I expected: that is, I stopped serving because I could and wanted to and started doing so because I had to.  I forgot what it was like to drown in sin, to struggle with addiction, and to feel hopelessness. I forgot what it was like to think God had moved a million miles in the opposite direction.

I forgot how to suffer. I forgot how to hurt. I forgot how to feel. There is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from a sermon well-written and better-delivered. And don’t get me wrong: a great sermon goes a long way on paper. But for all that I suffered, I forgot to suffer. I forgot to weep with my people. I forgot to hold them. So protective of myself was I, so angry at not having leadership, so frustrated by the lack of growth, so bitter at betrayal, so jealous of fellas half my age preaching in churches a hundred times the size of mine…I was becoming more and more the person I was warning the congregation not to become. I gave up the safety of insecurity and vulnerability and weakness for the caves of strength and clarity and well-spokenness. I traded. In the end, the only way for Jesus to awaken me was to destroy me.

Now, here I am, alone with the self I hate, the one I created in the image of the world. Here I am, now, alone with my introspection. I am the Bob Eucker of preaching: thought I belonged in the front row only to find out…not so much. Here I am, now, saved by grace only much more aware of it than ever before in my life. I am learning what I had forgotten: how to love and be loved, how to be known by Jesus, how to walk by faith. I am learning to let Jesus be in charge. I am learning to follow and listen. Learning that temptations are all around and there are people who will spoon feed them to you if you ask.

I’m in no way undermining the consequences or the failure or the sin of those who hurt my family. But, and this is a huge but, but, neither I am clinging to them for dear life and breath any longer. Holding on was probably worse than experiencing them to begin with. Genuine love, true joy, is possible when the person counts on Christ for his love and joy and not on the perfection of circumstances or identity. I spent almost ten years forging an identity in this community where I live only to have it taken away in a matter of hours and days. I spent the better part of 20 years becoming a preacher, but along the way I forgot how to be a disciple.

Sad. But true.

I should wrap this up for now. In learning what sort of teacher I do not want to be, I have inadvertently, or not, learned the sort of preacher that I had become. I also have learned why I became not so useful in the church. You see, I let My Ministry become that which defined me and my life and my existence. I learned from Tim Keller that this is a bad thing to do. My identity, Paul wrote, is not wrapped up in who I am or what I do. That is why he writes that we are to imitate Christ. Our identity is wrapped up in who He is which is, precisely, why Paul writes that we are to become like Christ.

I do not know yet what part I am to play in this world, but I am learning that if I must continue that I must find myself in Jesus first. So all I’m really trying to say is this: be careful. Maybe you are a young preacher, setting out on your way and looking to forge an identity or be the next big thing on youtube or the next big itunes podcaster. Don’t give in. You were meant for less.

Maybe you are a long time faithful person in Jesus. Don’t despise the wilderness.

I am meant for less. Thankfully. Because where there is less, there I will find Jesus, the one who has been looking for me all along. And now that I am exposed, undone, out in the open…now, I suspect, he can finally see me, and I can finally see Him.

And He is a sight to behold!

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Just a bit of reflection… of something that I am just as guilty of as those that I see doing it.

A thought that often pops up in my mind as I read “Christian” blogs and comments when people call each other names (liar, heretic, emergent, whatever) and the response that follows – why do we care so much about our “good names”.

When I look at the Lord’s Prayer this part stands in contrast to how we react to people calling our name or character into question:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,

If we live for the honor of God’s name we cannot simultaneously live for the honor of our own name. It’s like trying to serve two gods – it’s a conflict of interests.

I cannot find one scripture where Jesus reacted to anyone who attacked his character. Whenever someone said something bad about Him, He always pointed them to the character of his Father. One example that stands out for me is the one in Luke 15 where Jesus is accused of associating Himself with sinners. He could have reacted in anger, telling them about how they where hypocrites being sinners themselves while He is holy and never sins. But instead He tells three stories demonstrating his Father’s heart for sinners.

If we confess that we have died with Christ and are raised in a new life with Him, living for His cause and not our own, our name and reputation shouldn’t be of concern. This protecting of our reputation on blogs and in comments shouldn’t be.

Now, I know this is process we grow in – laying down our lives. That is why we should also have grace for one another in this respect.

May we live for the honor of His Name alone!

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Daily Office

“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  ”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.  They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)

I don’t want to be accused of taking this out of context and making it mean something it does not. So, in order to dispel that myth ahead of time, I add this disclaimer that I have in fact and indeed read the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29 and, at one time in the past, read the entire book. There. Now, on to other things…

As I read this early today before worship I wrote in my Moleskine something to the effect of, “Yes, but what does this mean for us, the church, disciples of Jesus?” I kept on thinking about it until we arrived a little late for bible school. We arrived late enough to interrupt and but early enough to hear a few remaining prayer requests from the young folks in the class.

One woman asked for prayer for herself and her husband. They want a child and, evidently, are having trouble conceiving. Another asked for prayer as they are trying to buy a house. Another asked for prayer concerning financing of a house already being purchased. I used to find this strange—all these prayers for simply mundane things that have nothing to do with the Jesus who told us to ‘take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow [him].’ What sort of self-centered people are we to pray that God provide us houses, children, money, crops or worse? Does God care about these things? “Dear God, please help my marriage,” is a lot different from, “Lord, your kingdom come.” But maybe it is not so much different after all.

I volunteered to pray for the class and as I did these words of the Lord written down by Jeremiah came flooding into my mind. I prayed for the people in bible school and reminded them of what the Lord said to the people through Jeremiah.

The importance of Jeremiah’s letter, his ‘word of the Lord’, is found in what the Lord told his people to do while they lived in exile among strange people: seek the well-being of the community in which you live, prosper, set-up shop, plant crops, have children, get married, do business and seek peace. This reminded me of what I read in Hosea chapter four last week, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away” (Hosea 4:1-3).

So we walk a fine line. God tells us in nearly the same breath: seek the prosperity of the place you live and deny yourself. Hosea spoke to those who, because of one sin or another, allowed the place where they were to become a wasteland, uninhabitable by anyone or anything. Jeremiah spoke to another group of Hebrews and said: Don’t allow disaster to happen to the land of your exile as your fathers allowed disaster to happen to the Promise Land. Seek their prosperity. Pray for them; seek the Lord.

I find it strange that God commanded them to seek prosperity and yet I don’t. It’s like Jesus on the water in Mark four who calms a furious storm not just saving his disciples but also the ‘other boats with him’ (Mark 4:36). We live and move and have our being in the land of exile and while we do, we do not cease being people who curiously belong to God and who belong to a curious God—a god who cared not only about Ninevah but the ‘many cattle as well’, this strange God who ‘sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.’

I fail to see the connection between prayers such as, “God help me be a rich person so I can bless those around me” and “God help the city where I live to be prosperous and productive so that you will bless me through them.” How does this strange God bless his people through the prosperity of a pagan city where we are being held captive? Strange are the vessels God uses to bless his people and make himself known. Strange that I should want Blockbuster video to do well.

God’s grace in our lives is a light in the darkness. WE, I say that with no quiver in my voice, WE are called to be God’s means of dispensing grace in the world. We are not to decrease, but to increase. We too, like Israel, live in exile. Peter calls us strangers, aliens, foreigners. This place is no more our home than our possessions are our own. We live in this place for a little while, but our home is someplace else—we ‘long for a better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). While we are here we are to make the best of it, to seek the Lord for the city, to help it prosper. We are not only to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but also for the peace of Madison, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, and California; the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Africa; the World.

Our prayers, and certainly God’s grace, extend far beyond the walls of the places we call sacred. We pray for the world that God might be known. We pray to God that the world might prosper in crops, people, and commerce. As such we should disregard the lying tongues of those who tell us otherwise. God seems to think such prayers are necessary, matter, and are vital to our own existence. Nor will I pray for the destruction of those who are opposed this godly message because that is not what God said to do. He said to pray for them and seek prosperity for their sake—for when they prosper, so also will I. So I’m not only going to pray for a young couple to have a child, for another couple to have a house, and for another’s crops to grow. I’m also going to pray that they will prosper wherever the Lord plants them—wherever their exile is manifest. And I will pray for the city where they are planted that it, too, will prosper.

Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son.” For God so loved the world…for God so loved the world…

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Daily Office

After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying good-by to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” After this, we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.

My journey with Jesus began when I was very young. It was in a small whitewashed Methodist church where I wore a white cape and lit the candles on the altar. I still remember the Pastor’s name, Chester Harrison, and I could even tell you about singing songs like ‘Fisher’s of Men,’ and also about putting coins in the plastic birthday cake on birthdays and junior worship. I remember my bible school class met in a small kitchen.

I can tell you about going to Vacation Bible School at the Lakemount Church of Christ where a young Chuck Doughty was the preacher. (Those in the COC tradition probably recognize the name.) I went during the week of my birthday and remember the cake I shared with another boy who shared my birthday. It was a great week.

I can tell you about different deans and teachers I met at the Elkhorn Valley Christian Service Camp. Garth wasn’t so nice because I wasn’t so quiet. Allan was OK but I remember distinctly the time he embarrassed another boy who was sitting cross-legged (as women normally sit) by saying, “Don’t sit with your legs crossed, it makes you look like a fag.” Bob Mack was camp manager at the time, he was a bit intimidating. Later he forgave me for committing a terrible sin at camp. There were others, but those days at camp were special. I first met Jack Cottrell at EVCSC at a mens retreat.

I also met Christian people at the Ohio Teens for Christ. I’ll never forget hearing Mylon Lefevre sing Crank it Up and Whiteheart tell us to Read the Book, Don’t Wait for the Movie, and David Meece sing about Grandma and Beethoven and Piano Lessons or something silly like that. I remember my friend Glenn, a really cool adult with a killer sound system in his truck, who took me to my first concert, Petra, and then later to Stryper at the Syria Mosque ballroom in Pittsburgh. We also water skied at his house. I never did actually stand up on the skis. He had a hot motor boat.

Then there was my home church and the elders there, the men who signed my ordination certificate, three of whom are now with the Lord, who are on my short list of heroes. The preacher at my home church who has managed to last a lot longer at the same church than I lasted in my entire ministerial career. Bible school teachers and youth group leaders are also fond memories for me.

What can I say about those people, those Christians, I met while at Bible College? Paul Kissling, who taught me to value others’ opinions, makes my short list of heroes as does Ron Fisher who loves God’s Word and Terry Ferguson (RIP) whose preaching style greatly influenced my own style and George Brown who taught me that I can still love books that are not ‘christian’. Then at Cincinnati Christian Seminary I met up close and personally Jack Cottrell whose Doctrine of Grace class totally undid me—the effects of that class still resound within me five years later. I met Fred Thompson in a theology class at Emmanuel School of Religion. To this day I have no idea what we talked about in that class.

And elders, deacons, preachers, and everyday joes at churches in Traverse City, St Louis, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Alma and half a dozen other communities in Michigan. Churches in North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where I have preached. People like Chris Lyons and Joe Martino and Brendt Waters and the rest of the gang here who have been so patient and loving with me—allowing me writing privileges when it was clear that I had no business talking about Jesus or his Gospel, let alone writing about it in public. I wish I had time to tell you about my love for Reed Duncan an elder at my home church whose kindness to my family extends more than I could ever fathom. I only briefly met Larry and Carol Necessary at a Church in Indiana, but they are two very special people. There was also the Catholic priest who conducted the wedding of my sister in law who was about as kind as could be when he allowed me to share his pulpit during the wedding and deliver a homily for my in laws. And another Catholic priest who shared his pulpit so I could preach the sermon at the funeral of one my young Cub Scouts who was tragically killed in a car accident.

There was this fella, at the church in Chester, West Virginia, where I served as preacher for a couple of years or so. His name was Earl and his wife’s name was Birdie. They died while I was in Chester. I preached both funerals. I love them and miss them—but not for what you might think. I remember when my Jacob was born, we had no insurance. The day of Jacob’s birth Earl came walking up the sidewalk as I was running out the door to go to the hospital. Earl said he had been walking around the property and had found an envelope. He also said that there was a rule that anything found on the church property automatically belonged to the preacher. I was all of 28 or so and thought he was serious. I didn’t realize how serious until later when I opened the envelope and found $2500 inside. But I miss them not because of that, but because of the way they died. I have never seen a couple, a husband and wife, love each other so much, and die so beautifully. They fought not, but gently went with Jesus.

There was Joe for whom I drove cab for a while and his wife Carolyn whom I loved dearly. I buried them both. Joe was a business man who was always trying something new. I think the church I served while driving cab for Joe drew the line when Joe had me delivering beer to people’s houses and picking up dancers at the local strip club and picking people up at bars or dropping them off at the local race track. Man do I miss Joe! There was Audrey Kilian and her son Scott, both of whom are now with the Lord. God how I miss Audrey and Scott. And there’s my friend David Rawls who has been my constant friend since we first met in 1991 at Great Lakes Christian College. Dave and his wife Gina taught us how to play cards and Dave has taught me how to love. And Kelly Irish, my best Anglican friend in the world who has taught me not to be afraid of the Holy Spirit of God.

There was a couple whose name escapes me that we met in North Carolina in 1994. We were on the highway at high noon when the timing gear on the car, well, broke. The car stopped. We were stuck. I remember an unnamed African-American girl who saw us stranded at a phone booth and took us in her car, three out of place white folks, to a hotel. I have no doubt she was an angel of God. No doubts at all. The next day some folks from a church there in Winston-Salem, he was an airline pilot, took us in for several hours while our car was being repaired. They fed us and gave us some space to rest with our one year old son who had spent the previous 5 days learning to walk at my brother’s house. We were to start an internship later that week so I cannot even describe for you how blessed we were.

I think about all the disciples I have known in the last 30 some years and I am overwhelmed. Everywhere Paul and his friends went they marked the place by the people, the disciples, they knew there. Mnason. Philip. Agabus. Disciples. Some named, some unnamed. I recall how each step of their journey was marked by some relationship or other. Maybe it was weeping. Maybe it was prophecy. Maybe it was prayer. Maybe it was hospitality. Maybe it was a dry bed. Maybe it was just a simple greeting of love and affection. I know why Luke thought it necessary to tell us Paul went to Kos and Patara and Ptolemais and Rhodes and Tyre—places no one in today’s world really cares about—it was because in these places there were disciples who loved and were loved. There were disciples there who remembered Paul and his companions. It was in those places that Paul his friends had people with whom they shared something in common: Jesus.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. I could tell you about the people I have ‘met’ through their books—Christians along for the journey. I think about all the Christians I have met, in all the places I have met them, and how in one way or another they ministered to me or my family and I think to myself: My God I am surrounded on all sides by the people of God. How many people I have met throughout my journey who belonged to Christ and have loved us and cared for us I cannot truly count. This is why, I believe, chapter 21 exists, and why Romans 16 exists, and Matthew 1: look at all the people who have this Jesus in common and who minister to strangers and friends alike. Look how big is the body of Christ! Look how grand is this thing that God has made that I can travel from the UP in Michigan to Galveston Bay in Texas to Winston-Salem, North Carolina and find the people of God. For that, I give thanks to God.

I grew up impressed by the people I knew
in the buckle of the bible belt
hopped in the van with the band
now I’ve been just about everywhere else
Met a soldier from Seattle and a lawyer from the East
a Texas oil baron and a Roman Catholic priest
Every day I choose
to walk in their shoes
’cause pretty are the feet of those
who bring the good news
Good people
good, good people
everywhere, everywhere it’s God’s people
Been on the road been far from home
but I found me a friend or two
time has taught me well and I can tell you
the good things people do
they really care and I’ve been there
seen it with my eyes
you can tell that they’re God’s people
by the goodness in their lives. (Good People, Audio Adrenaline)

Yeah, that’s how I feel. It is easy to get frustrated with God’s people and to imagine they are the worst folks on earth. Lord knows I have shared my share of anger and vented my share of bile at the way some church folks behave. I haven’t even scratched the surface of how good God’s people are, and this is only how they have blessed me. I do think it is important to remember those who have blessed us. I think that’s what Luke was doing: remembering the good people who, because of God’s grace, shared a day or two or three with others who were taking a journey. I don’t think it matters if we are on our way to Jerusalem or Borneo or Grand Rapids or Houston. What is important is to remember the people who have blessed you along your way.

I believe Luke’s point was this: these were disciples of Jesus, see how they blessed other disciples of Jesus. I wonder who might journey through my neighborhood tomorrow? I wonder how the Lord will ask me to bless them and help them on their journey—wherever that journey may be taking them? I wonder if I’ll spend a day or two or three with them? I only pray that when the Lord does, I am ready. There are good people in the church.

I want to be like them.

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Daily Office

“Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.”– Matthew 9:1-8

Let me ask you a question: Do you think this man’s paralysis had something to do with the sin that Jesus forgave?

Whatever else we might say about this passage of Scripture, this much is true: the man who was brought to Jesus on a stretcher got more that day than he bargained for. I don’t think Jesus forgave this man’s sins simply to irritate the scribes who happened to be hanging around that day. Nevertheless, they accuse him of blasphemy and Jesus rejects that charge out of hand: No! This is not blasphemy at all and I will prove it so.

And he does. Then he sends the man home, and there, in that simple phrase is what blows my mind about this story. It’s good that Jesus healed the man. It’s good that Jesus forgave his sins. It’s good that Jesus disproved the charge of blasphemy. The whole story is good, but that part where Jesus sends him ‘home’ is great. It is fantastic.

I am aware there is a lot going on in this ‘panel’ of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is healing. He is demonstrating his power. He is demonstrating his divinity (whatever that might entail). All of this, coming after the Sermon on the Mount—actions empowering his words—is a mighty testimony to the faithfulness of Jesus to his calling as the Son of God. As you may have guessed, however, something troubles me about the way preachers typically (and, not incidentally, traditionally) have preached this passage—as if it were disconnected from the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) and the great teaching that follows (10-13).

Typically this is a passage preached simply to demonstrate that Jesus was divine, God, that he was able and empowered and authorized to forgive sins. Yes. Yes. Yes. All of this is true, but that’s not the complete picture. Let’s not forget that something else happened that day too: “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” “Go home!” he says. “Go home.” It could be that he was like that fellow who laid by the pool all day (John 5) or that lame fellow in Acts 3 whom Peter healed and hardly ever went home or perhaps he had been rejected by his family. My point is: maybe he hadn’t been home for a while. As a paralyzed man, a sinner obviously cursed because of his sin, maybe he was unwelcome at home. I cannot think of a more liberating thing to happen to that man than for Jesus to look at him and say, “Go home!”

Thus the crowds respond the way they did, in a way, I might add, quite unlike the response of those who lived near the tombs in the region of the Gadarenes. It’s one thing to command the demon-possessed and quite another to heal a man from paralysis, right? But put yourself in the man’s place and hear Jesus say: “Your sins are forgiven; rise up; go home!” I suppose he could have said a lot of things; he chose to tell him to go home. Maybe that was Jesus’ way of saying that he was completely healed: he gave him back his home, his family, his dignity. Carried in on a mat, by ‘men’; carried out by the grace of God, on his own two feet.

In the April 2000 issue of Interpretation, L Gregory Jones, then dean of Duke University Divinity School (he may still be, I have no idea), captures well what I am getting at in his essay Crafting Communities of Forgiveness:

“At heart, Christian forgiveness is the means by which God’s love moves toward reconciliation in the wake of the sin and evil that mar God’s creation. Forgiveness aims to restore us to communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation. We are not created to be isolated or self-enclosed individuals, and God’s forgiveness aims at reshaping us for faithful fellowship” (123).

So Jesus sends him home. He reconciles him to God (“Your sins are forgiven”) and he reconciles him to humanity (“Take your bed, go home”) and to the whole creation since the man is now whole, he can take his rightful place among the living and contribute to the everyday comings and goings of humanity. Jesus is about making us whole, perfect, complete and we are not entirely complete until we are reconciled to God and man. His forgiveness of the man not only restored his hope with God, but also enabled the man to do something, I suspect, he hadn’t been able to do for a while: go home.

Like the men in the Gadarenes, Jesus brought this man back to life. He raised him up, brought him back to life. Now he lives to God, to his family, and to the community. The reconciliation, healing and resurrection that Jesus gives to us is about so much more than our mere selves. The healing and resurrection of one person changes everything and everyone.

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Daily Office

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21)

Something that has bothered me for a long time is the manner in which sinners are typically reckoned as members of the church. We ask them to ‘repeat the confession’: I believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God AND my personal Lord and Savior. So, we make sure we get in all those great Christological terms: Christ, Son, Lord, Savior, Jesus, God. And then, to much applause and fanfare, the right hand of fellowship is extended and the person is welcomed into the church. (Or they are baptized or catechized or turned into twice the sons of hell than they were before the confession.)

The problem is that nowhere in the Scripture are we told that this is even remotely close to the way in which sinners are reckoned as saints, orphans are reckoned as family, or wanderers are reckoned as disciples. In fact Jesus seems to be saying here that the confession of him as ‘Lord, Lord’ is one of the least reliable ways of determining anything. Jesus says that ‘not everyone’ who says this will ‘enter the kingdom’ (which I do not take to mean that it will be sufficient for some). There are wolves among the sheep. A lot of people are simply full of words, empty words as it turns out in the long run.

Bonhoeffer noted well,

“Even if we make the confession of faith, it gives us no title or special claim upon Jesus. We can never appeal to our confession or be saved simply on the ground that we have made it. Neither is the fact that we are members of a Church which has a right confession a claim to God’s favour…God will not ask us that day whether we were good Protestants, but whether we have done his will” (The Cost of Discipleship, 193; Bonhoeffer’s arguments here are a bit confusing but the short and long of it, he argues, is that this is not an ‘ordinary contrast of word and deed, but two different relations between man and God.’ One has to do with works, the other with grace.)

The gracious call of God, in other words, transforms us. There is a sense in which, in agreement with Bonhoeffer, our confessions are self-righteous and calls for people to notice us while our ‘doing’ is a drawing of attention to God, however quietly it may happen. Here N.T. Wright is also in agreement,

“This revolutionary vision of virtue thus enables us to shift attention quite drastically away from the idea that Christian behavior in the world is basically about ‘good works’ in the sense of good moral living, keeping the rules, and so on, and toward the idea that Christian behavior is basically about ‘good works’ in the sense of doing things which bring God’s wisdom and glory to birth in the world” (After You Believe, 71; his emphasis).

So Jesus is saying that, while a confession is not entirely out of place, if you truly want to demonstrate the grace of God in your life, or answer his gracious call, then respond to Him…make a confession not with words, but with actions. “The grace of Jesus is a demand upon the doer, and so his doing becomes the true humility, the right faith, and the right confession of the grace of the God who calls” He calls, we answer. “They know that confession does not justify, and so they have gone and made the name of Jesus great among the people by their deeds” (The Cost of Discipleship, 194).

Confession with words draws attention to the self: Lord, Lord, Look at me!

Actions, doing the will of God, calls attention to the God who calls: Behold, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So go, make his Name great today. Jesus seems to be more impressed with doing than with saying. And this, I suspect, will be the true test of whether or not a person has been received into fellowship in the church.

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