Engaging a Secular Culture (Without Being a Jerk)

This Sunday we’ll be continuing our short series which considers practical ways in which we can fulfill what the angel told the women at the empty tomb; “Go and tell” this good news. We’re going to look at another example from the book of Acts, one I’ve taught on before, but which bears repeating. We’ll be reading Acts 17:16-29.

In this famous teaching, Paul is summoned to the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, where the city council would meet. In this setting, Paul related the gospel to a completely uninitiated people. His approach to their culture gives us a fascinating insight as to how far Paul would go with his ideology of being all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22).

Read through Paul’s address. How would you characterize his words? Was he scolding? It says he was grieved by the idolatry he saw – but how did he start his address and what did he point to in his message to use as a platform for the gospel?

In v28 Paul quotes a line from a hymn of praise to Zeus, by the pagan poet Epimenides. He didn’t do that to validate a worship of Zeus, but as a support for his claim about the One, Creator God. How might we learn to do that sort of thing in the culture where we find ourselves?

How can we learn from Paul’s interaction with culture to engage our world without condemning it? Hopefully our consideration of this on Sunday will foster some new ideas for us as we follow Jesus who’s loose in the world! Hope to see you then!

 

Following Jesus Who’s Loose in the World

This Sunday we’ll be starting a short series to follow up on our study of the Gospel of Mark. When Mark finished, we were left with an open-ended command: Go and tell. Simple enough…but not that easy to carry out. We’re in a time and culture that isn’t all that open to historic Christianity; often seeing it as a primitive and phobic worldview. Some of that perception is our own fault, I fear.

No matter if there’s blame to be placed, we are still left with this high calling of following Jesus from that empty tomb into the world where he is now loose and bringing life. How do we join in with his work in a world like ours?

We’re going to look at an example from the early church this Sunday of how one person was going and telling the Good News. We’ll be reading Acts 8:26-39 this Sunday, which is the account of Philip sharing the Good News with the Ethiopian Eunuch.  There is so much that is intentionally unusual in this passage, and I think we need to take a close look at it.

When you read through the text – what is it that causes Philip to head out towards the desert? How easy or hard is it for you to follow those inward nudges of the Holy Spirit to change your immediate course or do something for reasons that aren’t very apparent? How can we be more open to those types of Spirit-inspired events?

The person Philip is directed to is from a gentile, pagan nation. He’s an official which means he’s steeped in the culture’s religion. He’s also a eunuch – someone who no longer functions, in the normative sense, sexually. He seems to be a seeker, or perhaps a proselyte. He’s coming back from Jerusalem, but he wouldn’t have been allowed to worship at the temple because of his condition.

Take some time to think about this man and try to think of what people in our modern world would fit into the categories he represents. How did Philip begin his interaction with this man? What can we learn from that?

What can we learn about advancing the kingdom of God from Philip’s experience? In what ways will we need to look past the outsider status of people in our world to share the hope of Christ with them?

I suspect this will be a challenging study – hope to see you there!

The Gospel Ad Infinitum

So – this Sunday we’ll be coming to our last study in the Gospel of Mark – we’ll be reading chapter 16. For the last year in doing this study I’ve done digital paintings to accompany the teachings – and I thought I’d share my process with you for these. This is sped up by 650% – so don’t get any ideas that I can actually paint this fast. It was fun to do – but I don’t think I’ll bite off anything that ambitious again – it really commandeered my time.

Most scholars, including very conservative ones, don’t believe the last 12 verses of ch 16 were part of the original text, but were added sometime after the 3rd Century. With that in mind, we’ll be keeping our focus of this study on the first 8 verses…which makes for a really open-ended finale.

In the text we return to the women we were reading about at the end of chapter 15. They are going to the tomb to finish the job of preparing Jesus’ corpse, something left undone because they ran out of time before the Sabbath. How does the theme of unfinished work get revealed in the first 8 verses?

Why do you think it was important that the angel singled out Peter as one to whom this message was given? What can that tell us about our own times of falling short? What significance can you discern in the fact that Jesus had gone before them and would meet them when they got there?

If you were to narrow the text down to the first 8 verses, what do you feel at the end of v8? Is there anything you feel prompted to do when concluding with v8? Ad infinitum is Latin for “to infinity”, connoting that something is ongoing. Mark probably intended for his readers to be called to an ongoing action in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection.  What is your response to the news that Jesus his risen, and what does it call you to do?

This has been a really enjoyable study to undertake! Hope you got as much out of it as I did, and I certainly hope you return to Mark again and again to read the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God!

The Kingdom Kernel

I remember helping my mom plant gardens when I was a kid. She loved gardening, and every spring in Michigan we’d walk out in a freshly tilled plot of ground and start planting seeds down the rows. I can still remember looking at those seeds and asking her for the umpteenth time what plant it would be, and she, very patiently, showed me the bright picture of a pristine vegetable on the seed packet.

I’d look at those seeds and try to figure out how the first shape would transform into the second shape. Obviously, horticulture was not something I pursued.

But that memory lingers in the text we’ll cover this Sunday. We’ll be reading about Jesus’ burial in our study in Mark, reading Mark 15:40-47. In so many ways, this is not just the account which fills in a few details whilst we wait for the resurrection (***spoiler – Jesus doesn’t stay dead***). Christ’s burial is something he forecast in John 12:24, when he made the statement: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” 

Once again, I’m a child, looking at the shape of the kernel and wondering about the shape the harvest. As I consider it – I believe we actually do get a glimpse of the shape the harvest of new lives will take as we look at the details of the Kingdom Kernel being planted in the grave.

In v40-41, who are the followers of Jesus that the narrative focuses on? Isn’t it interesting that none of the big names we’ve read about all through this story are mentioned at this juncture? A radical upheaval in the order of this broken world is pictured in this shifted focus – can you imagine what it is?

V42-43 introduce us to another new character: Joseph of Arimathea. A member of the Sanhedrin, he goes to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body so he can have a decent burial. The NLT says he “took a risk” in doing this. Imagine what the risks are for him? How might his fellow Sanhedrin members feel about it? How might Pilate react to another member of the religious leaders bothering him about Jesus? What does this social, political and religious risk tell us about the nature of this new life we find in Christ?

As you finish reading the chapter, what surprises do you come across? What seems unexpected in this text, and what might that say about a new life in Christ?

I think this will be an interesting and encouraging passage to study together. Hope to see you on Sunday!

 

The Curse Displayed and Cured

This Sunday we’ll be returning to our study in the gospel of Mark, we’ll be reading Mark 15:21-39.

Ask almost any given Christian why Jesus died on the cross, and you’ll likely get a response of “Jesus died for my sins” – or something to that effect. That’s not a wrong answer – but I’d suggest it is incomplete. Even there, many people really don’t even know what they’re saying when they assert that Jesus died for our sins.

The New Testament writers knew that what happened on the cross was central to what God was doing in fulfilling his promises to Israel. One of the major ideas of what was accomplished on the cross is a breaking of Satan’s stronghold on humanity and creation ET AL. Galatians 3 tells us that Jesus also delivered us from the curse of sin and evil by taking it all to himself on the cross. Yes, Jesus died for sinners, but not as a martyr or even a good example – something cosmic and mysterious took place on that cross. A rescue of unthinkable proportions occurred through Christ’s suffering and death.

This Sunday we’ll be looking at how the curse of sin and evil were put on display on the cross, and how we recognize what Jesus has delivered us from through his sacrificial death.

As you read this text for Sunday, imagine the scene as best as you can. What is Jesus experiencing, and how does it relate to this broken world? It might help to read Genesis 3. What correlations can you find between the fall of creation and what Jesus experienced on the cross? How does it help you understand what Jesus has accomplished for you?

I hope this study will provide a new sense of awe and appreciation for Christ, and what God had done for us all.

The Suffering Servant

This Sunday we’ll be reading about the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate as we continue our study in Mark. We’ll be reading Mark 15:1-20.

This is the moment when Jesus is confronted by the combined forces of broken religion, politics and social behavior. In a sort of perfect storm, as religion and politics vie for superior power and control, Jesus is caught in the middle of the machinations – suffering injustice, prejudice, accusation and condemnation, which will lead to his death on the cross.

Here, is radiant contrasts, we see the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity.

As you read through this section, what do you notice about Jesus? What does he do, and what is done to him?

Consider the accusations, the prisoner exchange and torture piled up on Jesus; what picture might it give you about what it is that God was accomplishing through Christ on our behalf? Think about that crown of thorns laid on his head. It was a parody of Caesar’s wreath crown. It was intended as ironic mockery. I believe God was communicating something else. Read Gen 3:17-19. What else might that crown symbolize, and what can it tell us about the purpose of Jesus’ suffering this way as our substitute?

I don’t understand the mechanics of all of this. I still find it fascinating that for 2,000 plus years people of faith have found something powerful and life-changing in this scene of brutality. I’m one of those. I can’t explain exactly what happened that terrible Friday, but I believe it changed the world, and I know it changed me.

We’ll contemplate the implications of this on Sunday – hope to see you then!

What a Trial Reveals

Hey everyone! After taking a break over the holidays, we’re ready to get back into our study of the Gospel of Mark. This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 14:53-72 – and the drama has really intensified.

After being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is taken to the High Priest’s palace where he will experience his first trial. But Mark does a “meanwhile” segue, picking up Peter’s location, which is in the courtyard outside the trial. He’ll come back to Peter at the end of the section, so it’s another Markian sandwich…meaning we’re supposed to connect the two stories.

We’ll cover some of the ways in which this trial before the Sanhedrin was preformed illegally. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how far religious systems are willing to violate God’s own values in order to maintain power. I think there’s a lesson in that.

Why do you suppose Jesus doesn’t answer any of the false accusations made against him? How would you be tempted to respond, if people misrepresented you this way?

At the end of the trial, the veil is finally lifted and Jesus plainly self-identifies as God’s Messiah. It offends the High Priest so much that he tears his robes. Here’s a fun insight: read Lev 21:10 – it seems the High Priest wasn’t too well acquainted with the Law he was supposed to be upholding.

Jesus stood quietly confident before the highest ruling authority in Israel – but at the end of the story, Peter caves under the pressure of one person. Who was that person, and what sort of authority would that person have in a patriarchal society such as 1st Century Israel? What differences do you note? What might Peter have done differently that night? When have you felt like Peter during times of pressure from this broken world?

Hopefully, we will be both encouraged and challenged by this study. Hope to see you Sunday!