Monday, July 29, 2013

The Truth about the Church

Photo courtesy of kingcarp
Adapted from a sermon given 7/28/2013

Recently the Lord has been emphasizing some things in my heart about the church. A few weeks ago this thought struck me;

If "church" is a place we go, then it is also a place we can leave.

Let me restate that for clarity and emphasis. If "church" is a place we can visit, or a location we can go then it is also a place we can leave after a prescribed amount of time. This has some very serious implications, one of which we will look at a little later.

The other thing that the Lord struck me with recently was this thought;

Jesus didn't come to this earth, live, die a torturous death, go into the grave and rise again on the third day for two or three hours of our week.

These two thoughts go hand in hand because the latter informs the former. In Acts 20:28 the Bible tells us,

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Further along in the New Testament Paul writes these words to the Ephesian church,

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus Christ did not die and "give Himself up" for a building or a piece of property upon which sits a place we call "church." He gave Himself up for a people and not only that, but He gave Himself up for all of us. Not just "all" as in every one of us, but "all" as in every bit of every one of us.

In 1 Timothy 3:14-15 Paul tells his spiritual son;

I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.

Now, Paul is instructing Timothy on how people ought to behave in the household of God. Does he mean this is how we act when we come to "church"? That is, when we are on church grounds, doing church things this is how we act and then when we leave we can act another way? I seriously doubt it. This is one of the gravest problems that comes with the idea that church is just a place we go. We think we can act one way in it and another way when we leave. This is certainly not the message of the Bible.

When Joshua issued the challenge to the Israelites to choose whom they would serve he gave them an option. He said, "You choose today who you're going to serve. You can choose to serve the gods of the people of this land and God will let you do that." We have a choice as to whether we are going to serve and worship a building or a concept of what church is and God will allow us to do that. That is freewill. However, Joshua then said, "but as for me and my house...we will serve the Lord." Did Joshua mean that he and the structure that he lived in would worship God? Probably not. That would be ludicrous.

The household of God and the house of Joshua had nothing to do with the building and everything to do with the people. The word that we translate "church" is "ecclesia" in the Greek. This simply means the "gathering" or the "assembly." Church was never meant to be limited to, or defined as, a building or a place but a people, the people of God. This is who Christ died for, this is what Christ instituted among men. He didn't die and rise again so He could come pressure wash the siding to make it clean. He didn't die and rise again so He could make sure we had the appropriate carpet color or shingles on the steeple. The truth about church is that it is the people in the building and when they leave the building they take church with them wherever they go. Furthermore, how we are to conduct ourselves in the church applies to every moment of our lives because we don't come and go from the Body of Christ.

If that is what the church is, then what are we supposed to do? I can think of three very specific things that we, as the church, are supposed to be doing.

1. Worship. When we come together as the "gathering" we need to be worshiping God in spirit and in truth. I long to see the church worship with total disregard to the people around them and pour out their souls in pure praise to God Almighty because He is worth it and He has earned it. Not only that but we should be worshiping God whether or not we are in a building labeled "church." It should not be limited to a place. If we are not doing this, we are not acting like the church.

2. Sharing the Good News. This is the commandment of Jesus to His followers, "Go therefore into all the world and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you." We don't have mediocre news to share, we have GREAT news of God's unending mercy, love and salvation. If we are not doing this, we are not acting like the church.

3. Serving. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, wrapped a towel around His waist and washed the dirty, nasty feet of His disciples. He set and example of service for us and James 1:27 tells us that pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God is visiting orphans and widows in the their distress. The church, the true church, is to be about the business of serving the least of these and the ones who are in the most need.  If we are not doing this, we are not acting like the church.

So, how do we do all of that? I confess that I don't have a specific answer to that. The truth is, it is going to look different for each of us. That is why the Body of Christ is made up of so many different parts, so God can use us in as many different ways to carry out these three objectives. This I do know, Christ didn't come to die for a place or a building or a piece of property. He came to die for a people and among those people I can say that as for me and my house, we will be serving and worshiping the Lord.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Truth About Racism

Right off the bat I want to admit that I did not live through the times of great racial tension in the 1950's and 60's. However, it appears to me that the times we are living in now are some of the most racially charged of my lifetime (1981-present). For that reason I want to approach this topic carefully, yet honestly. Even some of the highest officials in our government claim that we need to have an open and honest discussion about race in our land. Well, here is my open honesty. Please take it with the love and care in which it is intended.

From my point of view, as an evangelical Christian, there is absolutely NO room for racism of any shade in the Gospel of Jesus Christ or His followers. I could very easily stop right there because that just about sums up the truth of the matter. However, I think some further words are necessary. The clearest statement from Scripture on this subject is Galatians 3:28;

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 

To find a greater understanding of this verse we need to add a little bit of historical context. In Paul's day it was perfectly acceptable for Jews to despise Gentiles (Greeks). Slavery was another acceptable part of life as was looking down on women. Yet, in this one powerful statement Paul casts all of that aside in order to give us a God's-eye view of reality. Christ was sent to die for one and all no matter their race, gender or social status. That alone should convince us of the God given value that we all have. The real question for the Christian is this; if God can see past skin color, etc. why can't we?

The obvious comeback is that "we aren't God." Indeed, we are not and thank goodness! However, in Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells His disciples, Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Now, clearly this is a virtual impossibility in this life. However, that is what sanctification is all about. We admit our weaknesses and allow the Holy Spirit to form us more and more into God's image with each passing day. The fact that we are sinful by nature has never been a satisfactory excuse for continuing in sin. Friends, racism is sin.

Why is racism sin? Simply put it is you saying you are better than someone else simply because of how you were born. Or, on the flip side, someone else is worse than you are simply because of the way they were born. It is a value judgment that we have no right to make. "But Christian, you don't know what so-and-so did to me and they are a such-and-such." You are absolutely correct, I don't know what someone of a particular race as done to you. What I do know is what we, as humans, did to God and His Son Jesus Christ. Yet, He still looks upon us and loves us regardless. Remember, For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). There is no room, not even an iota, for racism within Christianity...none.

One of the other truths about racism is that it is not an isolated problem. It is not just white people who are racist towards black people. It is not just southern people who are racist against Hispanics. It is not just Jews who are racist against Greeks. It can work in any direction. Sadly, in our nation today it appears to me that we are regressing in the efforts made between whites and blacks. Much like my previous post on love it seems that in order to be found innocent of the charge of racism one is required to simply let a person do whatever they want to do if they are of a certain skin color or national origin. If we don't then we are labeled racist without further exploration into our true character.

I ran into some difficulty with this when I was in seminary. It was said, outright, that all white people are racist to some degree, no matter what they think. This was certainly an interesting revelation to me. Can the same be said for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Europeans, etc? I believe that in order to truly move forward and away from racism we must not assume racism is present in a person. If their character and actions show that they are racist, then cast judgment but not before. Furthermore, the solution to the problem is not preferential treatment based on ethnicity but equal treatment based on the equality that we share before God. Consider the words of our Founding Fathers,

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...

Again, I point you to Galatians 3:28. When God looks upon us He looks beyond skin color or ethnicity because He is the one who created us all in a variety of ways. Humanity stands as the crowning achievement of God's creation. There is no hierarchy of race. We are all of the human race.

Racism is one of the most heart-breaking problems I see in the world. It hurts because when I look across the landscape of humanity I see billions of people that Christ came to save. He even told us so in the Great Commission. We are to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, not a select few that look like us. The reality is this, heaven will be populated with all kinds of people. When we get there we are not all going to turn into one homogeneous people, there will be the same variety that God created on earth. So I will close with this thought. If we cannot figure out how to get along with people of various colors and ethnicity on earth, we are going to be severely disappointed in the Kingdom. If you think there will not be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, and so on in heaven you are tragically mistaken. We need to get it right now so we will have had good practice for eternity.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Truth about Love

Photo courtesy of kaniths
It should be no surprise to any of us that love is, perhaps, the most oft quoted attribute of God. This is for good reason. 1 John 4:8 tells us as much, "for God is love." Indeed, one cannot conceive of any other attribute of God without first considering His unending, unconditional love for His creation. God loved enough to create us. He loved enough to give us free will and when we used that free will to disobey Him, He sent His Son, whom He loved, to die in our stead. The Gospels and the message of Jesus are replete with the command to love, not only those who love us, but even those who do not. To try and comprehend God or His Word without looking through the lens of love is the acme of foolishness. However, it has come to my attention that God's love, and our concept of the godly love we are to display, has been tragically perverted over the years.

Recently, I have seen the transformation of godly, biblical love into a love that would never tell someone that which they do not want to hear. That is, if I truly love someone I would never confront them about sin or wrong doing because that, in short, "isn't very nice." Also, if I am to preach and act in love it would never cause division between myself and someone else, or a group of people. My dear friends, if we only take the Gospels into consideration we find that such is not always the case. Furthermore, I believe that if we strip true love of its ability to address sin and transgression we are, at the same time, stripping both the Old and New Testaments of the basis of their power and robbing the good from the news.

Here is the way I see it. Jesus Christ always acted in a loving way. He could do no other. While He was on this earth He ministered to a wide variety of people and showed them the love of the Father one-hundred percent of the time. However, His love was not always received as such. His love for the religious elite of the time required that He address the sin in their lives and the bankruptcy of their religion. This, in the end, led to them calling for His execution. By nature, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is going to be divisive because it meets the sin in our lives head-on. Never will it leave us their hopelessly dangling over the chasm of hell though. As the Gospel hurts us as it cuts away the deep seated patterns and habits in our lives it also heals as it transforms us into new men and women in Christ Jesus.

The Apostle Paul is very clear, along with the rest of the Bible, on what love really is. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 defines it in this way;

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account wrong suffered, does not rejoice is unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Most of us are familiar with that passage and it is often the subject of the homily in a wedding service. The commonly held beliefs about love are certainly present in this definition; kindness, humility, forgiveness, patience, endurance, etc. However, what many people want to pass over are the more unpleasant aspects of this cornerstone attribute. Notice that love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. Love, true love, does not gloss over sin and wrongdoing. It forgives it, but it does not pretend it does not exist. The brand of love that is being sold by the world, and a great number of Christians, is a cheap kind of love. It is cheap because it is more akin to kindness and it is far easier to carry out than godly love. Sometimes the most difficult thing for us to do is tell someone they're wrong. Yet, at the same time it is also one of the most loving things we can do.

Imagine for a moment that we are granted the opportunity that the rich man and Lazarus were given. That is, to see through the great divide between heaven and hell. I wonder how many people will be in hell wishing that someone they knew had not been so "nice" to them by withholding the truth about sin and salvation, and instead had loved them enough to tell it.

I suppose the root of this problem is that there are basically two camps within Christianity. Those who believe the Bible is God's Word and accept it as authoritative, and those who do not. If we say that the Bible is the truth then it is clear that God's love for His people has not always been pleasant. You see, it was because of God's love that He sent Israel into exile so that they could learn to follow and worship Him alone. It was because of God's love for humanity that He offered to withhold His wrath from Sodom and Gomorrah should just a few righteous people be found. God loved Saul so much that He was willing to put him on his back and blind him for three days in order to prove Himself to the future missionary. The ultimate example is, of course, God sending His Son to suffer the punishment that was due to all of us. Needless to say, I doubt Jesus felt very loved as He hung on the cross that day.

I understand that many may disagree with my assessment here. They may say that I preach the love of Christ and then do not show it with my actions because I am willing to make the claim that God calls certain behaviors sin. I say that it is because of my love that I make such claims.

Now I must turn my attention to those who do agree with my definition of love but use it as a weapon of torment and torture rather than a surgeon's scalpel. Just as there are those who cheapen the definition of love by ignoring the truth, there are also those who ignore the compassionate aspects as well. We have seen far too many so-called Christians waving signs with slurs and terms of hatred towards those who are blatantly sinful. While some of what they say may be true the manner in which they say it is far from the grace of Christ. True love understands that we are all sinful and has compassion on those who have not yet experienced the grace, mercy and forgiveness of Christ. True love recognizes that I am only able to love because God first loved me. He does not love me as a result of my personal righteousness or that fact that I am not _____________ (fill in your favorite type of sinner). He loves me because 1) He created me, and 2) because of the Christ in me. Godly love admits that none of us are "lovable" on our own and we are all susceptible to sins of various strains. Knowing that we reach out with the honest, tender love of our Savior.

There are a great number of people who would still call me hateful even after this explanation of my position. For those, I have nothing further because it is not true love that you are after. Why? I believe it is because it is easier and more expedient for you to say that I do not have love than it is for you to deal with truth about it. If you want to fill churches to capacity then that is fine. Continue to tell everyone that God loves them (true) and has no moral standards (false). People will feel soothed and, to them, religion will be serving its purpose as a warm blanket when one is ill. Yes, churches may be filled and public opinion may rise but heaven will be gaining no new citizens and the road to hell will be paved with your good intentions. Finally, you may not think I am very loving, and that is your right. However, I am going to continue to seek the affirmation and guidance of God Almighty and if I can, in some small way, show His brand of love to the world then I will be satisfied.