The Lamppost of a New World

For some time, the street in front of our church building has been under construction, but it has finally been completed. While stopping by there one recent evening to drop some papers off, I looked up the sidewalk, and standing tall on the corner was a new streetlamp. Not an average wood pole and light, but a decorative, vintage-looking lamp.

I strolled up the sidewalk to get a better look; with our church building illuminated behind it, I laughed quietly to myself.

Yes, I thought of Jesus’ statements that his followers are the “light of the world” who are to let their “light shine before others”. But there was something also that stirred my imagination.

One of the most popular series in modern Christian literature is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s first and most famous novel tells the story of a young girl, Lucy, who playfully steps into a wardrobe and discovers within a strange and magical land. Her first few steps bring her to a London-style lamppost located amid a wintery forest. As she gazes in wonder at this sight, a woodland creature named Mr. Tumnus, a Faun with his own complicated story, happens upon her. It is at this lamppost their friendship begins, and ultimately incites an adventure leading to the salvation and liberation of Narnia. Later we learn the lamppost was planted there at Narnia’s beginning, grew from out of Narnia’s newness, and has since emitted an eternal flame to remind all of the Life and Song with which it was imbued.

While I may just be making something out of nothing, that’s what landmarks do. They serve as reminders that something happened here, and we can be better for it. The lamppost in the Narnia story can serve to kindle our church’s imagination for her purpose every time we see the newly installed lamppost on our street corner.

Like Narnia’s lamppost, the Church can mark the bridging of the world as it is, and the better world God is making through Christ. Like Narnia’s lamppost, the Church can also bear witness to the Life and Song as it was in the beginning, and as it will stir and ring out again. Just as with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, the Church is where relationships can begin, and reconciliation is made possible. Finally, as seen at the novel’s end when Lucy again encounters the lamppost and returns to the wardrobe and to her world, the Church marks the end of old stories that are also the beginning of new chapters.

Beholding the lamppost then as if for the first time, Lucy declared “It will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern, either we shall find strange adventures or else some great changes of our fortunes.”

I hope those who encounter our church may also echo Lucy’s daring in their own thoughts. I hope that our church may be such a “light of the world” letting our “light shine before others” that those who enter our midst may experience in our community the deep magic of a world being made new.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

How do we discover and develop spiritual gifts—(1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

Once Paul has established and clarified that the gifts are various Spirit-shaped, Grace-expressive enablings by which the Church community equips one another with Christ-like maturity, in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, he states a conundrum—not every believer has the same gift. Not every follower has the same function. It’s a conundrum that can create some concern within one’s soul. Do I have a spiritual gift? How can I discover it? How might I develop it?

Paul’s solution is to cut through the confusion with a simple, but excellent way forward. It’s called Love.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

In these sledge-hammering comments, Paul clarifies that if the giftings are not expressed in and through Love, the gifts will not facilitate the common good the Spirit meant to manifest. If our gifts are not channeled by Love, the Spirit will be unable to use His graces-in-us to shape a Christlike community. With the efficiency of the giftings appearing to depend on whether Love is present, it would then seem that Love is both the way of discovering our giftings and the means of disciplining ourselves for their use.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

A careful look at Paul’s famous Love passage here suggests at least two aspects of Love that relates to the discovery and development of our spiritual gifts.

One, this Love is interactive. “Patient…kind…not boastful…” are things that require interacting with others in order to be properly practiced. Since spiritual gifts are interactive by nature, Love gets us to where we need to be, both spatially and maturely, to use the gift. People won’t be blessed by the Spirit’s gifts in us if we’re not willing to interact with them, and we won’t interact with them if we aren’t willing to Love them. Love shapes in us the willingness to interact with one another so the Spirit can shape through us His Grace in that other.

Second, this Love is holy. This Love does not bend to whatever wind it’s blowing in; this Love remains rooted in the deliberately distinct and disciplined nature that brought it forth. Holiness seeks to use interactions as transformative encounters that yield “the common good” the Spirit desires to manifest. One might have the gift of godly knowledge, but if they don’t teach with patience and kindness, they cannot affect the “the common good”. If Christlikeness is the destiny, holiness is the fuel that makes Love go.

How might this all be generally applied? Look around your congregation. What people, situations, services, or needs are opportunities to practice this list of Love? Start small and simple; experiment and go from there. Over time, pay attention to how your maturation and ministering efforts overlap with the encouragement and growth of others; within that overlap may very well be an enabling by God’s Spirit to express His Grace.

Why do spiritual gifts exist?—(Ephesians 4:7-13)

In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul states “To each [brother and sister] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. When you look at how Paul frames this verse, he begins with individuality, moves towards an encounter with the working of God’s Spirit presence, and ends up with anticipating a community characterized by God’s goodness. Paul’s framework here and throughout the chapter emphasizes the spiritual gifts are for the benefit of the body of Christ.

In Ephesians 4, another significant passage on giftings, Paul employs this same corporate language; in that passage, however, he frames it within the broader framework of Christ’s kingdom rule and how the Church exists within that royal reality; one we must be familiar with if we are to understand why the giftings exist.

Paul’s goal throughout his Ephesian letter is to animate his audience with the exultant reality to which Christ has been resurrected, elevated and enthroned to reign over. The conclusions and implications he draws out for the Church all stem from the fact that Christ reigns with glory and power. In Ephesians 4, Paul begins his discussion of the gifts by first briefly ruminating on the bookends of Jesus’ life in a motif that is rich with royal politics.

“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 

“Descended” encompasses Jesus’ incarnation into a world gone wild, his kingdom-establishing ministry amidst that world, and the accomplishing of a restorative righteousness by his crucifixion. “He ascended” refers to the Father’s recognition of Jesus’ righteousness by the resurrection and exalted elevation to the heavenly throne. This gospel motif is the imagery of a crown prince who, having demonstrated and received recognition for his worth, is deservedly and triumphantly coronated as King over the Kingdom. It is a celebratory moment of elation and rejoicing for a good and wise King is once again in charge. The restorative righteousness the King accomplished must now be implemented across the breadth of the wild world. How? Those loyal to the King shall live strewn about the wide wild world as colonists whose lives are lived together as colonies reflective of the King’s righteousness and character. In order to fuel and energize their restorative efforts, the King regularly distributes and supplies his colonies with gifts of provisions.

The provisions of this motif, I suggest, are analogous to the gifts Paul proceeds to describe: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Remember the old saying “It takes a village to raise a child”? Whether a butcher, a baker, or candlestick maker, everyone in the village had roles which contributed to the corporate livelihood of the village. Within this framework of Christ’s royal realm, Paul’s list of giftings are roles whose positions and functions are meant to establish and nurture Kingdom culture. If our churches begin to view ourselves as Kingdom colonies whose culture is a reflection of the King’s character, perhaps our fellowships will actually result in the holy community that is perceived by the neighboring world as good news.

An Attempt to Recover a Biblical Sense of Blessing

I must confess to being long frustrated with many popular concepts of blessing.

Sometimes bless is used as a positive sentiment at the end of a speech or greeting card. There’s the polite, and superstitious, “bless you” when someone sneezes. There is the more material aspect of blessings we either count or hope we experience as health and wealth; Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, however seem to frame material blessings as something God has given humans general access to, depending on available resources, fair processes, favorable circumstances, promising opportunities, and industriousness. There is also the calculating usage of quid pro quo (if you do X, you will be blessed). Whatever the intentions of these usages, their substance seems in want of the weightiness actual blessedness should bring. If limited to these usages, the concept of blessing will continue to be an unremarkable one. Thankfully, Scripture points to a blessedness of far greater substance.

Ephesians is probably Paul’s most exultant letter; understandably since his entire attention is captivated by Christ, resurrected and raised to the heavenly throne “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is not, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph1:21). It is Paul’s desire to animate his audience with resurrection reality (Eph2:4-7).

He does this from the letter’s outset, contemplating the abundance of God’s blessedness: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph1:3).

Variations of the word bless occur three times in this verse. The first time frames the Father as the One from whom all blessedness flows; the second time identifies us-in-Christ as the eventual recipients of the Father’s blessedness. The third time names the heavenly places, where Christ reigns, as the locale of the Father’s blessedness. This blessedness, put simply, is the exultant reality emanating from Christ’s reign which we-in-Christ are elected to receive and participate in as his royal people.

If that explanation sounds a bit starry-eyed, Paul proceeds to elaborate on five finer-pointed features of this blessedness the Church experiences in Christ.

First, we-in-Christ have been blessed with adoption (Eph1:5-6). Upon enthroning Christ as King, the Father expands his household to those who recognize sin for the homelessness it is (Eph2:19), and instead choose to allegiantly dwell in the home of his holiness (Eph2:21). Wherever you are, whatever you perceive, in Christ you are of the Father’s household. Let that blessedness be as a signal banner waving in your mind. 

Second, we-in-Christ have been blessed with forgiveness and redemption (Eph1:7-8a). A part of the blessedness belonging to the Father’s household is forgiveness. In Eph3:18, Paul measures out the unfathomable “breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love. Forgiveness requires these vast dimensions to cover sin’s wide spread. In addition to unburdening our souls of sin’s shame, this blessedness also brings us back to something better, a redemptive reality for which we were always designed.

Third, we-in-Christ have been blessed with an eschatological hope (Eph1:8b-10). While many end times or apocalyptic discussions often focus on more nightmarish imagery, here Paul finds blessed assurance that in Christ, all things, in heaven and earth, are being brought into submission to Christ’s cosmic rule. Whenever we look around and exasperatedly lament “What is the world coming to?”, this point of blessedness boasts that God is sovereignly moving all history towards a good future in which Christ has the last word in everything.

Fourth, we-in-Christ have been blessed with a heritage of holy ones (Eph1:11-12). Right relationship with God isn’t restored simply so we can dispense with living in right relationship with others. Within the Father’s household we have been blessed with family. In Christ, we’ve been given the gift of each other. This Church community gives visible expression to restored harmony with humanity. As the earthly body of big brother Jesus, we are God’s resurrection people, worthily embodying the kind of community that demonstrates to the world what reconciliation to God, creation, and each other is supposed to look like. Holiness in a vacuum is always incomplete; holiness is harmonized in the blessedness of being with and belonging to each other.

Finally, we-in-Christ have been blessed with the presence of God’s personhood (Eph1:13-14). It is the head of the household who sets the standard and tone for what that household will be about. The Holy Spirit is the living dynamic by whom the Father perpetually puts His household in holy and harmonizing order. Throughout Ephesians Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as the presence that provides us access to the Father, the power that strengthens our own inner spirit, the mediator through whom Christians are unified and Christian living is aligned, and the outfitter who clads us in the protections of Jesus’ person. By shaping in us ever-maturing personhood of Christ, the Holy Spirit is the blessing through whom all God’s blessedness is continually conveyed.

How might this concept of Biblical blessing impact the Church?

First, it establishes in our minds and hearts the foundational fact that, in Christ, we are already blessed. Many of the other popular usages nurture an anxious waiting and wanting for a blessedness we are prevented from realizing we have already received in Christ.

Second, it presents God’s blessedness within a framework that promotes wholesomeness rather than fragmented or compartmentalized living. This blessedness begins as the heavenly reality God’s Spirit shapes in our spirits on Earth, then gradually correlates into the physical and emotional expressions we all deeply desire to experience as humans—assurance, actualization, affirmation, community, hope, purpose.

Third, it stirs us to active engagement. Continually waiting and praying for a blessedness we’re unaware we already possess in Christ passively undermines the Church’s witness and mission. Realizing we-in-Christ are already blessed moves us away from our passivity of perceived lack and empowers us to actively live from out of the abundance of God’s blessedness.

My prayer is, not that God would bless you, but that you would awaken to the blessedness God has already abundantly poured out in Christ—a home made of His holiness, a belonging made of each other, a redemption restoring humanity, a view to the blessed end, and a presence that permeates and empowers for His purposes. May it be the foundation from which your faith is lived forth.

What the Church might yet learn from Billy Graham

I must confess I struggle to know what the term Evangelical means anymore. I know that in the Greek, it originally meant good news or gospel. While I find that to be the most clarifying sense of the word, for over many years now it seems to have also taken on nuances of historical nostalgia, political influence, and attitudes similar to those who might pursue and preserve power. It’s a word whose many connotations I find difficult to fully comprehend. It has a lot of baggage with it that has burdened its original intention to convey God’s good news. For that reason, I rarely use it or readily identify with it.

This morning I woke up to the news that the Reverend Billy Graham had passed into God’s good presence. I know of Billy Graham the same as what everybody knows, that he was a preacher of Jesus Christ. While I wish I knew more about him, when it comes down to it, that is what he essentially was. A man who devoted his life to travelling from city to city, state to state, country to country preaching the good news about Jesus. In a culture that frequently esteems complexity and nuance, it’s amazing to think a man of such simplicity impacted the world so greatly.

In a sense, that simple essence helps remind and clarify what it might mean to be evangelical. A person whose life reveals God’s good news.

Reverend Graham’s passing comes at a time in our history where so much of the country is embroiled in a chaotic divisiveness of which the Church is very much a part. What role the Church goes on to play amidst this chaos will greatly depend on whose rule or kingdom we are seeking.

In Reverend Graham’s death and our looking back at the simple essence he was about, maybe the Church can be reminded that our essence is not about leveraging power to progress an agenda, but to be those whose lives really convey God’s good news.

My Dad once told me a story that when Richard Nixon received the presidential nomination at the Republican convention, he invited friend Billy Graham to a backroom with other friends and politicians where there would likely be smoking, drinking, cussing, political discourse. Ruth Graham, however, pulled Billy aside and said, “That’s no place for the man of God.”

Our place is to make much of Jesus and embody his way of living that conveys the uniqueness of God’s good news. It is a mission for which Reverend Graham labored long; now that his labors are over, his labors are now ours. As we take them up, let us be careful to leave the baggage behind. May we take up his labor of love in such a way that conveys news that is truly good.

Why the resurrection will make marriage unnecessary

Our congregation has been recently exploring what the New Earth could be like; the discussions have been interesting. Our topic this past Sunday focused on if we will be married. The subject becomes front and center in Matthew 22 when the Sadducees challenge Jesus with an absurd hypothetical: “In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven [husbands she married] will she be?”

Jesus responded “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

Scripture has a lot to say about marriage: how we’re designed for relationship, God’s purposes for marriage, how holiness is to characterize marriage, how we are to treat our spouses. So after all the page-space and historical emphasis Scripture invests into marriage, why does marriage now get so easily discarded in the resurrection? A legitimate question to be sure.

Perhaps a more instructive question to ask, however, could be what is it about the resurrection that makes marriage unnecessary?

Jesus doesn’t explain. Since the Sadducees didn’t really believe in the resurrection, their question is a ruse he swiftly moves past. Yet the issue remains. How can all the energy, emotions, commitments, and sacrifice people have invested in their marriages be suddenly made irrelevant? We must look elsewhere in Scripture for possible answers. Thankfully, I believe Scripture provides those answers.

Ephesians is probably Paul’s most noteworthy text on resurrection living. Much of its latter half is spent explaining how the reality of the resurrection uniquely redefines our relationships and behavior. Concerning marriage, in Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul draws a significant correlation between a husband and wife’s marriage to Christ and the Church. Paul patterns the relationship dynamics between a husband and wife after Christ and the Church. Since the Church is the body of believers whose lives inhabit that of Jesus’ through his love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and continence, marriage becomes the perfect setting for such virtues to be authentically and maturely grown. In light of the reality-altering redemption Jesus’ resurrection affects, marriage is now most meaningful as a reflection of the covenant between Christ and the Church. In short, marriage potentially trains us to be the people of God. One could even call Christ-centered marriage a practicum.

If we also look carefully at Paul’s first letter to Timothy, who was then ministering at Ephesus, we can see this same idea at play. While there are several comparative examples, the clearest is probably 1 Timothy 3:5 where Paul bases a church leader’s competency on the quality of his home life. Possibly the process was learning Christian discipline from a teacher, practicing it at home with family, and continuing maturing with the assembled congregation. By learning to follow Jesus, they learn to lead their families, which subsequently teaches them to encourage and build up the larger congregation. From the teacher to the person, to the family, to the congregation, Christ is given expansive exposure and attention “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

From this perspective, the Christ-centered covenant between husband and wife is ultimately meant to move us deeper into the Christ-centered covenant with each other, his body the Church. Perhaps it is this perspective that begins to help us see why the resurrection renders marriage unnecessary, or rather, ultimately fulfills marriage. By the time of the resurrection, marriage will have played its part in nurturing the communal intimacy rooted in God’s love for us and expressed in our love for each other. Christ-centered marriage trains us to love so that when God establishes the New Earth, Christ-centered love is both new and natural.

The struggle with this topic is the dissolving of a precious bond so many people have spent so many years nurturing. It seems to make marriage meaningless. But rather than the dissolving of a precious bond, the Scriptures point to the uniting of a billion bonds more. They reveal that when “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready”, the love which has flowed from Christ will bind us into a blessed belonging with those whom God has joined together, forever.

“You will know them by their fruits” | Matthew 7:15-20

Much of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5-7 is the establishing of God’s Kingdom ethics to guide how his disciples live. Within this “Sermon on the Mount” are designs for a form of discipleship that can easily be characterized as unique. This is important to consider for at least two reasons. One, if we are following a one-of-a-kind King, it stands to reason that our following be done in a one-of-a-kind way. But secondly, if our way of living begins to blend undistinguishably into the milieu of other ways of living, it may indicate a departure from that one-of-a-kind way has occurred.

Such a departure does not happen suddenly, but gradually. Sometimes it just happens due to a series of seasons and reasons. But other times, such departures can be induced or prompted by some form of influence.

Jesus had seen this happen amongst his own people. By his time, hypocrisy had grown prevalent amongst the teachers of the Jewish law; there was a tendency to teach one thing while doing another. This tendency essentially resulted in a culture that ran contrary to what God had already established in Scripture. Concerned this tendency also would occur within the community he was teaching his disciples to cultivate, Jesus issues them an alert: “Beware of the false prophets”.

A prophet’s role is to clarify the way of God and to embody that life in a manner that calls people to it. The false prophet completely undermines this effort. How so?

Jesus’s full statement in Matthew 7:15 is “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

The imagery here seems to be a bit of dark humor. Humorous because the image of a wolf adorning himself in sheep’s wool in order to get close to the flock seems quite cartoonish; yet dark, considering that beneath this cartoonish façade, deceitfulness, theft, and devouring are playing out. These are figures who intend to creep in amongst Christ’s followers, assume authority of Christ’s message for their own agenda, and modify it into an alternative version than what Jesus revealed. Thus Jesus characterizes the future false prophets who will attempt to infiltrate his kingdom community.

In our day of parachurch positions combined with self-promotion, the role of prophet sometimes takes on a somewhat official capacity. While we would not expect to see anyone wearing a name tag saying false prophet, it seems in such a day such a person would appear more obvious. But that’s Jesus’ point: such people will not be so easily recognizable. Therefore, adapting to a new metaphor, Jesus continues “You will know them by their fruits.”

To clarify, Jesus illustratively says Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.”

Everyone in this agrarian culture knew sweet and energizing fruit doesn’t come from dry prickly bushes. Nature only begets its own. What is produced is determined by its nature. Nature cannot mismatch or misproduce. Nature can produce nothing besides its own. Though Jesus’ disciples would identify false prophets by recognizing their fruit’s “bad” nature, doing so required they know what “good” fruit looks like.

Throughout his sermon, Jesus’ usage of good usually refers to the Father’s goodness as framed in his teachings. By keeping to and living out the sermon’s teachings, disciples embody and project the Father’s goodness. The Father’s goodness is the nature of which the disciples are now apart through their following of Jesus. To live a life that reflects a nature different from that of the Father, as framed in the sermon’s teachings, is to disassociate oneself from his nature and his goodness, disabling oneself from producing “good fruit”.

Being able to identify possible distorting hypocrisy and predatory deceitfulness at play amongst our congregations is necessary. Ultimately, however, it’s not about an incessant haphazard heresy hunt, but taking Jesus’ warning seriously by recognizing the reality it portends. That he has called us to a type of living whose root is the Father’s unique goodness and whose fruit is the way of his Son. Since it would not be love on Jesus’ part to validate types of living that would contradict the type of living he is establishing, his words call us to be transplanted out from every alternative type of living, however preferential they might be, and implanted into the Father’s uniqueness facilitated through the Son so what is cultivated will yield a nature sweetened with God’s goodness.