Engaging Without Judgement nor Accommodation

This Sunday we’ll be returning to our series Following Jesus into the World. We’re going to consider how we can engage our culture without judging people, nor accommodating every development a society makes. We pointed out two weeks ago that our present American culture has become “disenchanted” – that is, scientific rationalism has resulted in a deeply secularized society. The willingness to embrace a belief in a God who can’t be seen nor proven empirically is no longer considered a beneficial option.  We considered some of the ways the church has reacted to our Post-Christian culture, and so far, our track record has not been all that positive.

This week we’ll look at Acts 17, where Paul engaged the Athenian culture in his sermon on Mars Hill. The Ancient Greeks present the closest parallel we’ll find to our modern, Western world. As you read over his sermon, how would you characterize his words? Does he sound combative or angry? What did he tell them about Moses or the Old Testament? Who did he reference in his talk? How observant and knowledgeable did Paul seem to be with the Athenian worldview?

If we were to look at Paul as an example of how to engage a culture which doesn’t acknowledge our God or our faith, what can we apply from his approach as we seek to engage our world? Paul observed an altar to “the unknown god” and saw it as a crack in their preconceptions through which he could shine the light of the gospel. What sort of cracks can we observe in our own culture’s barriers to the unseen, spiritual world? How might we shine our hope through those cracks?

Hopefully this will give us some things to think about, and maybe we can keep our eyes open for opportunities we hadn’t considered before. See you Sunday!

Following Jesus into the World

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Those are the final words presented in Matthew’s gospel, which we looked at last week as we concluded our study through that book. As I was praying and thinking about where to go next, I felt strongly that we, as a community, may benefit from hanging out on those words for a while. So, we’re going to begin a short “topical” study that focuses on this mission Jesus set before us as his followers. Some of the things I want to consider will be: What characterizes the world in which we are to pursue this mission? What is the nature of this mission? What will it look like in real life? What does it mean to have Jesus present with us? Do I have to get weird now?

I think there have been few things that I’ve felt more uncomfortable and awkward with than “evangelism”. My whole Christian life I’ve known that the mission given to us by Christ is to go make disciples – to invite others into the kingdom of God. But so many of the evangelism programs that I’ve participated in over the years have left me feeling more like a salesman than anything else. I’ve memorized “conversation starters” that I was supposed to spring on unsuspecting strangers in restaurants or stores. My words inevitably became ill-fitting and I’d usually excuse myself without having “closed the deal”, walking away feeling bruised and inadequate and yet frustrated because I was clearly not being myself. If this is what evangelism is, then it is the introverts nightmare. Have you ever had experiences like that within the church?

What I want to do is consider how our life of following Jesus, of submitting to his reign over our lives, is a large part of how we will fulfill this Great Commission. How being present with Christ and having Christ’s presence IN us becomes the meeting place between heaven and earth. I want to look at our present culture and start to understand it more than critique it, so that we can be observant for where Jesus is already at work in our world and join him. That will be what we focus on as we start our study this Sunday.

As you look at 21st Century American culture, what characteristics stand out as negatives to you? What positives are you able to observe? As you’ve observed it, how much weight does our present culture give to supernatural things? Of course, imaginative stories of superheroes and ghosts are the main ingredients of movies and TV…but culturally, what would you say our culture puts its trust in? How might that effect their interest in our Good News about an invisible, Creator, God and a resurrected Savior? What sort of challenges can you envision with that set-up?

Author Lance Ford wrote: The gospel of God’s kingdom reign is not only good news in and of itself—it is good news because it creates a new people who are good news. How might that enlighten us as to how we would approach our culture with the gospel?

Hopefully, this series will challenge AND encourage us. Trust me, I have no interest in fostering some unrealistic program to save souls…I’m hoping we become people who are stoked about being good news.

Hope to see you Sunday!

And the Beat Goes On

Well – we did it. After a year and some change, we have come to the final study in the Gospel of Matthew. We will be finishing up chapter 28, reading verses 16-20. This is Matthew’s abbreviated account of Jesus meeting up with his disciples after his resurrection. It’s a brief passage, but there is a lot of stuff to consider in these final words.

For one thing, v16-17 are fascinating and delightful to me. As his followers gather around their previously deceased Rabbi, they respond in a way that is telling about the nature of Christ. They worship him. How would you respond to an event like that? How would it change your perception of the person you followed as a leader? Jesus allows them to worship him. What does that tell us?

You know what else I like? V17…that some doubted. It’s a very brief and unqualified statement which Matt just slips into the narrative. What did they doubt? That it was Jesus? Or did they doubt that he had really died? Or were they just unsure of what to make of this; unsure that worship was the right response? What doubts would you be wrestling with if you stood in their sandals? Consider this: does Jesus rebuke them? Does Jesus separate out the doubtful before he gives his instructions? He appears to give his command to worshipers and doubters alike. What can that tell us about the dynamic of faith and doubt in our own Christian life?

Some Greek scholars say the sentence has been translated poorly, that is should read “they worshiped AND doubted” – meaning the response was a mixture of devotion and perplexity.

I find that delightful. It resonates as real to me.

Jesus gives several imperatives in his final instruction. Go to all nations, make disciples, baptize, teach, obey and trust. This is what will be going on until, as he puts it, the end of the age. Which of those imperatives are easy for you to jump in on and participate in? Which ones are more challenging for you? How has our study of Jesus’ ministry help to shape our understanding of what this will look like?

I hope you’ve gotten as much out of Matthew’s gospel as I have. I hope we all gain a clearer focus of God’s kingdom and heaven meeting earth to make all things new.

Bearing our Consequences

Image result for ancient crucifix

I was doing my usual research for our teaching this week and came across some differing views about policies of capital punishment in the Roman Empire (yes…I’m that boring), which led me to investigate historical evidences of crucifixion, which led me down a very long path of looking at all the various ways in which the crucifixion of Christ has been represented in the arts. (None of this, by the by, made the cut for my teaching…but it was fascinating for me)

What struck me was how much the crucifixion of one Middle Eastern man two millennia in the past has persistently and relentlessly invaded the imagination of humans right up until this present day. That cross emanates something we vaguely intuit. There is a key there and we can’t shake it.

The New Testament has the crucifixion of Jesus as a central theme from which the hope of the gospel flows out. While a robust theology of this event was still in it’s primitive stages in the minds of the NT writers – one thing is crystalline clear: Something VERY important happened in relation to the human condition and the future of the world when Jesus died on the cross. That much they unflinchingly declared.

This Sunday we’ll be reading the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in our ongoing study of Matthew – we’ll be reading Matthew 27:32-66.

Over and over again the NT tells us that Jesus died for sinners – for us. The picture they present is that Jesus, as our substitute, the righteous for the unrighteous, took the consequence of our sins onto himself in that death.

As we consider him, hanging naked and surrounded by enemies who mock him, we see him bear our shame.  In what ways does that effect us now? How can Jesus bearing our shame help us in understanding ourselves in relation to God. How does it effect our understanding of God’s view of us?

Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross – most likely wanting to connect himself with the suffering servant of God from that lament. On the cross he takes our forsakeness – our despairing aloneness and separation from the Divine onto himself.  Not just to identify with us – but to take that away. What do you think that looks like in your life experiences? How can we apply this to times when we do feel alone or forgotten by God?

I love the image of the curtain which separated the holy of holies being torn from top to bottom. What significance, if any, do you see in the direction of that tear? Christ’s sacrificial death has now cleansed us and re-united us with God. What implications does this carry for us, especially in light of understanding who we are in relation to God?

As you read over the passage – what other consequence of sin, if any, do we see Jesus bearing in our place?

This, again, is a brutal yet beautiful passage – a window into the heart of God towards you and I. Hope you can be there this Sunday!

The Wonderful Cross

“Righteousness and love, law and grace, life and death, as well as time and eternity all intersect at the cross; displaying a divine wisdom that staggers the imagination and leads the humble heart to bow in thankful adoration. To understand the cross of Christ is to understand the heart of God toward a fallen world He wants to save.”
― Steven Cook

This Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 27:1-31. It describes the preliminary stages of the cross experience of Christ. We’ve stated before that the cross is the central revelation of God’s character. So, we’ll be focusing on the cross in our teaching, discovering what it reveals and provides for us. It’s a very painful section to read and discuss, but it is also beautiful when understood as a picture of God’s heart towards humanity. That’s one of those strange, delicate tensions that the Gospel is full of.

In v1-10, we have the set up for the trial before Pilate, but then a parenthetical account of Judas’ fate. Judas went to the temple and the temple leaders because his heart was burdened by the sin he committed. What response did he meet there? What does that tell us about what had happened to the temple system of that time? How does that contrast with Jesus’ ministry and the cross experience he undergoes in this section? What warnings do we discern when it comes to our own framework for the practice of our faith?

Through the rest of the section we’ll cover we read about the trial before Pilate. Pilate had political aspirations and clearly wanted to protect those, but he also had difficulty with the apparent innocence of Jesus. The crowd and their leaders wanted blood and Pilate wanted to avoid a riot which could further tarnish his reputation as a competent leader for Rome. He offers a trade – he’ll let one prisoner go as a gesture of good-will for the Passover – who will it be? Barabbas, a condemned insurrectionist and murderer, or Jesus, the hopeful messiah. He likely expected they would choose Jesus over a brigand, but he was wrong. Barabbas, the guilty goes free and Jesus, the innocent, takes his place for crucifixion. Matthew is pretty heavy handed with the telling of this – it’s obvious what he wants us to see. What do you see?  What is this a picture of the cross providing for us all.

When the soldiers mock Jesus, they dress him up like a clown king…a parody of what a ruler should look like. They fashion a crown out of thorny brambles to put on his head. The Creation story comes to mind, and the curse pronounced because of sin:

Gen 3:17…”cursed is the fertile land because of you;
        in pain you will eat from it
        every day of your life.
18 Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
        even as you eat the field’s plants.”

Considering that curse, what does Jesus being crowned with thorns mean to you? What can it be picturing about what the cross of Christ is providing for us?

As I said – it’s a heavy and painful section of Scripture to read – but beautiful beyond comprehension as well. Hope to see you Sunday.

When Faith is Falling Apart

Related imageI think one of the most common questions that gets posed to me is: “What is God DOING to me?” – or variations on that. “Why God? Why is this happening?” seems to be a regular refrain in the song of the redeemed. The reality is, life is painful and difficult and being a follower of Jesus doesn’t insulate us from experiencing that. That’s one of the reasons I love the gospel so much, because it never presents a triumphalist view of the world where the good guys always win. No, it clearly presents us with suffering, in all of its ugliness; but also reveals that pain as the very stuff that God works through to bring about his ultimate good.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 26:31-75 – covering a lot of territory, but all of it goes together, trust me.

Obviously, Jesus is the focal point of this section – but there is another character that reoccurs over and over through the entire section. Who is it?

We’re going to look at what we can learn from Peter’s miss-steps. By observing what he does, we can discern what NOT to do when our world starts to fall apart and our faith beings to fail.

Read it over – consider what the opposite moves are to Peter’s movements and attitudes, and you should be tracking with what we’ll consider this Sunday!

Hope to see you then!

A New Exodus

What’s your favorite holiday? I still really enjoy Christmas, especially now that grandchildren are in the mix. We have traditions that we hold to every year, some that are sentimental, some that are just silly…some that are both, like Janelle and I and our annual light-hanging on my house. I don’t think I laugh all year as much as I do on that day. Have you ever had something go strange during a holiday celebration? Something that made the whole thing feel awkward?

For the people of Israel, the Passover Meal was and is the central celebration of the Jewish faith. It is a special meal, with special food and special prayers – all of it rich with meaning about the national heritage and covenant they enjoyed with God. In our text this Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 26:17-30, where Jesus and his disciples share the Passover Celebration together. Jesus, however, veers from the normal traditions and reshapes the celebration to reveal something amazing about his mission!

The Passover meal was instituted during the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt where they had lived as slaves. It commemorated their deliverance from slavery, as well as their protection from judgement, as the angel of death passed over the houses where the blood of the Passover lamb was sprinkled. The exodus of Israel revealed the distinction between the systems of this world (Egypt) and God’s Kingdom. Israel enjoyed a unique relationship with God – a covenant – and those are the things the Passover celebrated.

Jesus chose Passover as the timing of his sacrificial death. What does that tell us about the nature of Jesus’ messianic mission? What is it recreating. What are the parallels, on a worldwide scale, between the first exodus and Jesus’ mission.

Why do you think Jesus cryptically states that one of their own will betray him? Why do you think he didn’t just point him out and condemn him on the spot?

If Christ’s body and his blood, given sacrificially on the cross, is the basis of our unique relationship with God (a new covenant, in Jesus’ words) – what will that relationship look like in light of its basis?

If I were clever, I would have timed this teaching for next week when we celebrate communion…but hopefully we’ll remember what we learn and absorb it, not just for a week from now, but for life.

See you Sunday!