Salt & Light: Heart of the Church of Tomorrow

 

In Acts, Dr. Luke tells us that, when Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” (Acts 1:8). When that happened, the church would be born and his disciples would be empowered to spread the gospel in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Sure enough, fifty days later, while the disciples were praying, God sent the Holy Spirit upon them like a fiery wind. The wind of the Spirit filled the house they were in and descended upon the disciples like tongues of fire, empowering them to witness to Christ in many languages. Peter was empowered to give a mighty sermon, and many people were saved (Acts 2:1 ff.).

I need to stop right there and be sure we remember that the evangelism problems of the first church were much greater than the ones we face. Other than the twelve apostles, some women, and a few other disciples who had not deserted the faith, there was no church at all! Yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians were empowered to reach out in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and then into the Roman Empire and the end of the then known world. No one really knows. [1] Within about 200 years of the death of the last apostle, Christians were in the majority in the Roman Empire.

We know that, during those early years, individual people reached out by the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to their family, friends, neighbors, and fellow-workers. We know names like Peter, Paul, Silas, Pricilla, Aquila, and others. [2] We do not know the names of the countless hundreds and thousands of new Christians who shared their faith with their families and friends. If we want to reach out to a new generation, we cannot say it is the pastor’s job, or the evangelism committee’s job, or the job of a few members who feel called to share their faith. It is and must be everyone’s job.

Let’s All Be Salt and Light

We all know the Beatitudes. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by expressing to his listeners what the blessed life is like. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and lowly, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because they defend the cause of Christ” (Matt. 6:1-12). He begins by informing the crowd what their lives should be like. Then, he tells them why their lives need to be like this:

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. People do not light a lamp and put it under a bowl. They put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).

Let us pray: Eternal God make us salt and light to those we meet. In Jesus Name, Amen.

America in a Dark Place

Every so often pastors and interested lay people read articles and books on the condition of faith in America. Christianity is on the decline in our society, not just among younger generations or in certain regions of the country but across race, gender, education and geographic barriers. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years.

Here are a couple of striking facts.

  1. Millennials are increasingly not a part of Christian Faith. The so-called Millennial Generation” is just not returning to church as they grow older.
  2. People who are unaffiliated with a church are becoming more secular. This includes all generations. Even older people are beginning to “drop out” of Christian congregations. [3]

Years ago, my former congregation did a study of what was going on to guide us in developing a five-year evangelism plan. The results of our study were frightening to say the least. Our church, which was by all measures relatively young and vital, was experiencing a steady decline in members between twenty-five and thirty-five. We were financially solid and not declining in absolute numbers, but we were slowing getting older. We also discovered that we were not alone. Even highly evangelical and evangelism-oriented churches were experiencing the same problems we were experiencing. Over the past few years, I have had many, many conversations with pastors and religious leaders, church consultants, and others. Everyone in every denomination testifies to a decline in overall attendance and commitment. The media loves to hold up a few rapidly growing congregations to our eyes. What they do not like to tell is this: Most of them are growing by attracting people who are already Christians to one degree or another. Most of their growth is what is called, “transfer growth.”

While it is a fact that Christian faith is under attack in America, under attack from the media and from very well-funded lobbying groups, among others, it is also true that ordinary Christians are not doing their part to reach the world for Christ. It is also true that the church in America has not necessarily reached out as Christ desired for us to do. We all need to be salt and light every day to everyone we meet!

The Importance of Salt

Salt is something that we Americans often try to avoid and think is somehow unhealthy to eat. When Kathy and I first got married, she tried as hard as she could to restrict my intake of salt. Like many Americans and members of my family, I was addicted to salt. Even today, our diet contains less salt than is common in the areas in which we have lived. In the process, I forgot something important—salt is necessary for life. Animals naturally seek out “salt licks,” because they instinctively know that they need salt to live. I was a camp counselor for many years. When we took our campers on a long hike, we always made them take salt tablets so that they would not pass out on a hot summer day.

In the early part of our nation’s history, land with salt on it was in great demand. Salt is not only necessary for life, it is a preservative. Before refrigeration, iceboxes, and the like, salt was necessary to preserve food. My parents, who grew up in the depression, knew exactly how to salt pork and beef; and they salted meat well into the 1960’s! Not long ago, I developed an infection in my mouth. My dentist recommended that I brush my teeth with a special compound that included salt. Salt, you see, is a disinfectant.

Jesus grew up in a culture that knew the importance of salt. He knew it was necessary for life. He knew salt is a preservative. He knew that salt is a disinfectant. He also knew that the People of God, people who live like Jesus with his wisdom, his love, his peaceableness, his humility, and his willingness to help others were necessary for his society and for all the societies of the world. Therefore, he tells them, “You are the salt of the earth” (5:13). In other words, when your society is overheated and dying—when your society is decaying and needs preserving—when your society is sick, you are the salt that is going to heal, preserve, and make it well again.

We need to take Jesus seriously. Our society is pretty clearly overheated and decaying in an orgy of self-centeredness, self-seeking, hedonism, materialism, etc. We are like a runner that is running out of steam and who has sweated too much. We need a salt tablet of the Holy Spirit! We are like a steak left out in the sun too long. We are beginning to smell of decay. We need to be salted! We are like in infection that is beginning to fester. We need some disinfectant! Our world needs people who live differently from everyone else and by their love and wisdom act as a healer and preservative, not just for their own benefit, but because of the benefit that makes to everyone else.

The Importance of Light

Just to reaffirm his point. Jesus goes on to say that people who live like him and who by the power of the Holy Spirit model their lives after him are the light of the world (5:14). Here is how he puts it:

 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (5:14-16).

In the ancient world, people used oil lamps to provide light. Oil was a precious thing because it provided light at night. If a woman wanted to light her house, which was usually just a room or two, she would not put the lamp in a corner, some out of the way place. She would not hide her lamp under her laundry basket. She would put her lamp right out in the open in the center of the room or as close to the center as possible. She would also put her lamp as high as possible in the house—on a lampstand.

It does not take a lot of imagination to apply this to our lives. Throughout history, light has been a symbol of God’s wisdom. The Bible refers to God as light (I John 1:5) and to Jesus as the Light of the World (John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5). Paul tells the Colossians that they have been rescued by Christ from a Kingdom of Darkness and translated into a Kingdom of Light (Colossians 1:12). In wisdom literature over and over again the ways of God are referred to as a Path of Light and the way of evil is referred to as a Path of Darkness. [4]

There are a lot of folks in our world that live lives of deep darkness. I have been a pastor and a lawyer, and in both my lives I have seen what foolishness and what wickedness people are capable of embracing to their own destruction. There are many people trapped in loneliness, isolation, personal and spiritual brokenness, unconfessed sin and brokenness, foolish habits, and the like. Jesus is saying that we need to let the light of Christ illuminate our lives, and then we need to allow the light of Christ to shine into the lives of others, just like a lamp shines in the darkness.

Being an Everyday Disciple

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was not just talking to seriously-committed disciples, or a seminary class, or to a few religious zealots. He was talking to common people who came to hear him beside the Sea of Galilee. He is not saying, “Go hire and especially holy pastor and make him be a moral example.” He is not saying, “Find a few people in your church who really want to live differently and turn over the task of being salt and light to them.” He is telling the crowd and us that we all need to be Salt and Light. We all need to be sharing our life with others in life transforming ways.

Several years ago, Kathy attended a mission conference in San Antonio, Texas. There she learned about what God is doing in the Far East and other places, including San Antonio, Texas, to plant new churches and to grow existing churches. She learned about a lay-driven technique that a lot of those congregations use. Being the person she is, within just a few weeks we were leading a training group in our home. Over the next two years, we developed a ministry we call “Salt and Light.” One of our members suggested the name. It relies on ordinary people learning to be filled with the Spirit, living the Christian life daily, and sharing the Good News with Others. [5]

Here are just a few elements:

First, Salt & Light is done in community in Small Groups. A Church that is a Disciple-making community will be a place of new life in Christ, where people experience the life-transforming power of God– a new kind of life – in Jesus Christ in personal relationships with others who themselves embody the light of Christ.

Second, Salt & Light is based on the Great Commission.  A Church that is a Disciple-making community will be a place where what Luke calls the “Apostles’ teaching” the Good News of Jesus Christ, in whom we can have forgiveness of sins and restored fellowship with God and others (Acts 2:42-46). We need to know the Gospel and how to present the Gospel to others.

Third, Salt & Light is Spirit-driven, prayerful, and transformational. A Church that is a Disciple-making community will be a place where people pray and experience the power of prayer in their lives and in the lives of others. We need to pray for miracles of God’s presence in our lives and we need to learn how to share those miracles with others.

Where these things happen, the church experiences the blessings of God and an increase in the fellowship, because people see what God is doing in the lives of people.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Michael Green, Evangelism and the Early Church Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004).  See also, “Evangelism and the Early Church: Did You Know?” Christian History Institute www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/evangelism-in-early-church-did-you-know/ (downloaded June 17, 2017).

[2] The beginning and end of Paul’s letters often contain a long list of coworkers and brothers and sisters in Christ. For an example see Romans 16:1-16. There are many examples of this phenomenon in Paul’s letters. The Book of Acts also reveals that Paul led a group of laypeople who shared in his ministry. Paul himself worked as a tent-maker. The early church grew as a primarily lay-driven mission.

[3] See, Sarah Pulliam Bailey “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion” Washington Post, May 12, 2015 (www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/…). See also, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[4] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014) for a full treatment of this insight from New and Old Testament Wisdom literature. Our society needs to rediscover the importance of both community and the wisdom of an historical community of faith in helping human beings face the challenges of life.

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Evangelism (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). Salt & Light embodies one concrete way to bring a relational, communal form of evangelism to your congregation.

A Disciple Spends Time in the Word

A few moments ago, as is my custom, I finished spending the first few minutes of the day praying, reading the Bible, and meditating. I have been a Christian since 1977, and for the vast amount of that time, this has been my daily routine. This has been true as a layperson, as a pastor, and as a parent. After all these years, I do not feel right on the days I skip and hope and believe it makes a difference in who I am and how I behave.

A committed disciple is committed to spend time in the written Word of God and so as to have the knowledge base to grow in likeness and fellowship with the Word Made Flesh. To be a disciple is to be centered in Holy Scripture in and on the One of whom Scripture speaks. A great deal of what we can know about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life we learn by listening to the voice of God in Scripture. This knowing about, however, is of no use to us unless it results in our growing in a relationship with God in Christ and in our personal likeness to Christ.

In Acts, Paul leaves Thessalonica for Berea. Initially, the Thessalonians were resistant to the Good News and did not want to hear Paul’s message. Later in Berea, things were different. Luke records: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12). Those who earnestly hear the gospel of Christ are almost always eager to study their Scriptures. We study our scripture to test the testimony and opinions of others and to grow in our understanding of God, God’s world, our fallenness, and our unique place in God’s plan to redeem the world.

In perhaps his last letter, Paul underscores the importance of Scripture as he writes young Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Here we see Scripture liftedup for what it is: the source of Godly wisdom, of a deeper understanding of the secret wisdom revealed in Christ, of the nature of faith, and of our hope in God through Christ. The Scripture was given to us by the Spirit of God and teaches us, rebukes our sin, corrects our errors, and trains us in the ways of God.

The Crisis of Biblical Knowledge

For a long time, pastors, scholars, and students have known that “Biblical literacy” is declining in our culture. There was a time when the Bible was found in almost every home in Europe and North America. There was a time before radio, television, and other forms of media and reading the Bible in family groups was common. There was a time when public schools and colleges taught the Bible and taught literature based upon the Bible. In such a culture, most people grew up with some understanding of the story the Bible is telling in the culture was formed by the story of the Bible.

This is no longer true, the story that the Bible tells us no longer at the center of our civilization. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the cost of discipleship, Europe was no longer filled with Christian nations. The elites that ran European countries no longer believed in historic Christian faith; however, the educated and were part of the culture in which their fundamental values were formed by the Christian story. Unfortunately, this is no longer true in Europe or in the United States.

Instead, in Europe and the United States, as well as the other parts of the world formed by European in the American culture, political, educational, cultural, and artistic leaders performed by a worldview that excludes God, the miraculous, the notion of a personal communication from God, prayer, and other facets of Christian faith. People formed by such a worldview simply do not find Christian faith, values, or morals important or realistic.

The situation will not change, and the crisis of discipleship will continue, until a group of people become deeply formed by the Christian story and Christian faith so that their approach to life and to secular problems of life are formed by the Christian story. The formation and growth of such a group of people cannot be done by mass media, but corporate education, or by large, entertainment driven, local congregations. [1] It can only be done within small groups of people who are studying the Scriptures, praying and leaving out the Christian life together.

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, thinks that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world, being transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our lives and automatically do the kinds of things that please God. This transformation will not and cannot occur until and unless we change the way we see the world, think about the world, and respond to the challenges of everyday life.

The Bible is a tool we use in day-to-day life. [2] all tools require skill to use properly. Generally, the utility of a tool is only fully available to a craftsman trained and experienced in the proper use of the tool so that its use is second nature. Mental tools are no different. The value of wisdom literature is not in the study of it, or even in the memorization of its teachings, but in internalizing and consciously and unconsciously learning to live wisely over an extended period of time.

An example of this function of wisdom is the warnings of wisdom literature against laziness and against excessive work (compare, Proverbs 12:4 with Proverbs 23:4). These proverbs provide a way of thinking about work and leisure. They are not a substitute for personal decision. They are an aid to thinking and acting, not a substitute for personal responsibility. This book intends to encouragement readers to rediscover wisdom literature not as the solution to the problems of life but as a source of basic principles that we can apply to live wisely.

As we study, memorize, and meditate on the Bible and the story of God and humanity that it tells, we learn to “indwell” the story and its principles. Only when the stories and teachings of the Bible are internalized, so they are tacitly available to us as part of our conscious and unconscious perception of the world, can they perform their most important use in guiding thought and action. [3] This is why wisdom literature is important for young people to internalize at an early age so that it can function to guide their perception and experience over the long course of their lives.

Modern Christian churches (including my own) have not done a sufficient job of providing members and children with the skills in living wisely required to meet the challenges of our society and the prevailing culture. This book is designed to help Christians understand and respond to the challenges our culture presents to the wise life. I have attempted to connect wisdom literature with the greater narrative of Scripture to show how Old Testament wisdom fits into the greater story of God’s wisdom and redeeming love.

The crisis of our civilization and world is largely due to a lack of understanding of the true story of the world and the love affair that god desires to have with all people, of every tribe and nation. The Good News of this story is contained in the Bible and particularly in the stories of the life death and resurrection of Jesus, of his interaction with people, and of the response of those people to the Good News.

Transformed by the Word

As Christians study Scripture and meditate upon the One revealed in its pages, we encounter the God revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Later, in Colossians, Paul urges Christians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). As we listen to others in a Bible Study or Sunday School Class, God’s word, the Word of Christ, enters our hearts through the window of our minds. Slowly, but surely, we are transformed.

[1] I hesitated to use the phrase, “large entertainment driven churches,” for fear that the phrase would be taken pejoratively. Recent years have seen the emergence of large congregations that rely upon sophisticated media and popular music in worship. There is nothing wrong with this approach. However, as powerful as the worship experience may be in these congregations, discipleship formation cannot be done in worship alone. Many of these congregations recognize this fact and are deeply committed to developing discipling ministries in their congregation.

[2] This part of this chapter is adapted from and based upon a similar section in my earlier book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 10-11.

[3] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Glouchester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). The work of Polanyi and its application to wisdom thinking is often noted during the course of this study.

A Discipling Community

 

Christians were meant to be part of a family. We were meant to live in community with other Christians, sharing our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our dashed hopes and dreams, our worries and our cares. The church, the community of those who have responded to the call of Jesus to come and follow him, is not something optional. It is essential. Becoming a part of the community of Christ is essential to becoming and being a disciple of Christ.

The Bible uses many metaphors for God’s community of discipleship. The Church is Body of Christ; it is the City of God; it is the People of God; it is the Family of God. In the last chapter, we noted that, when Jesus came to be among the human race to display for us the wisdom and love of God in human form, he did not do it alone. He chose a small group of followers and poured his life into them. He created a community of disciples. During his lifetime, the little group grew. When he ascended into heaven, his discipleship group became the church. A fundamental principle of disciplemaking is that all believers, and especially new believers, need to be part of a discipleship group. Just as children need a family to grow up in, so also young Christians need a family to grow up in. They need the experience of growing in Christ in an intimate fellowship of other people who are trying to grow in Christ as well. We never lose our need for that close, Christian, family of disciples.

In an individualistic culture, it is tempting to think of the church as a kind of voluntary society like-minded people join to advance a set of beliefs or even a way of life. This is not the proper way to think of the church at all. The church is more like a family. Our families existed before we existed, just as the church existed before we became members—or even believed in Christ. Just as we grow up in a family, we grow up in the church. The church is a family in which the children are disciples of Christ growing into a deeper relationship with God.

Commitment to Discipleship

In the ancient world, a disciple was a learner, someone who followed a teacher around and learns from them. The process of learning was twofold: First, the disciple learned the information that teacher knew. Second, the disciple came to model the lifestyle of his teacher. For example, Plato, a disciple of Socrates later taught his disciples, one of which was Aristotle. In this way, the teachings of the master were passed down. We recover this ancient way of teaching people and changing lives. It is very important to remember that we are not called merely to transmit information to people. We are called to help them live a new kind of life as a disciple of Jesus. In a sense, every disciple is a child of those who helped that person grow in Christ and is the parent of those that they are discipling into the image of God-in-Christ.

The internet and “online learning” has made college and other educational opportunities available over the internet. There are even many “online seminaries.” While these online educational opportunities are good for transmitting information and gaining credentials, they cannot by their very nature provide the kind of discipling that Jesus modeled. Jesus personally spent time with his disciples and they learned as much by what they observed as by what they were taught. There is an old saying that children “do as the see and not as their parents urge.” Disciples model themselves after older, more experienced disciples just as children, for better or for worse, model themselves after their parents.

All our married life, Kathy and I have been members of what we call “discipling groups.” We met in a Bible study. When we were a young couple, we were in Bible studies with other young couples. Each of us has been a part of small discipling groups with men and women separately over the years. When Chris worked, he had a small group in his law office. When we went to seminary, Chris met weekly with a group of fellow students. Since entering full-time ministry, both of us have always been part of discipling groups. For years, I met with several men weekly. We met for almost eighteen years. For many years, I have taught a year-long Bible Study. Those groups meet for nine months. Often, our churches sponsored short-term groups that meet for six or so weeks. Today, Kathy and I lead “Salt & Light Groups.” The size and length of the group is not what matters. It is the love of the group and the example of its leaders that matters.

Some years ago, we became part of a renewal movement that encourages the formation of small discipling groups, and over the years we have been members of such small groups. We’ve led other discipling groups in our home and at church. We’ve always been members of Sunday School classes. We’ve attended special groups to learn special skills such as child-raising or how to manage our money. Each one of these groups changed our lives in some important way. Along the way, we’ve grown, helped others, made many life-long friends, and experienced the joy of Christ. Just as Jesus was lifted up into heaven and was no longer physically with his disciples, most of these groups eventually disbanded as people moved along in life, but each person in each group remains a precious memory. Some of the members of these groups keep in touch after as much as thirty years apart!

Just as this was being written, we met a couple that we’ve known for over thirty years for an outing. Chris has known the husband for a bit longer. We’ve never attended the same church. In fact, we belong to different denominations. However, when we were young, for just a few weeks, we had a weekly Bible Study in our home. The deep love created years ago emerges every time we are together. The day before, another couple dropped by our house with their grandchildren. Once again, we met in a discipling group many, many years ago. Today, we are still Christian friends, helping one another grow and face the new challenges of a new stage of life. The love of discipling groups is a kind of love that never ends because it was not primarily a human love but a divine encounter.

The family of God is important in a society that does not value family, and in which many people live and work far from their biological family. The form of life that is common in American and other cities increases that loneliness among many people. As mentioned a moment ago, many people live far from parents and siblings. Because of divorce and other factors, even if they might have community with their biological family, many people do not. The structure of modern corporate society makes it necessary for many people to live away from their families, sometimes across the globe. With the advent of social media, many people come to rely upon social media and electronic connection as a substitute for real human relationships. Finally, many people are working longer hours than in prior generations. The result is a kind of epidemic of loneliness.

This loneliness is not healthy. In fact, it can be pathological. If we human beings were meant for community, for deep and abiding relationships of deep care, then this structure of living is bound to leave most people unfulfilled and other people deeply wounded. If being fully human requires that we be in life giving relationships with God and others, then it is no surprise that the result of our societies deconstruction of the family and of stable communities and neighborhoods has had devastating impact on the mental, moral, and spiritual health of people.

When our society does provide community, that community is increasingly political or economic in nature. Unfortunately, jobs, corporations, business relationships, and the like can only provide a kind of limited social connection. Business does not love anyone as a person, only as an economic unit. Similarly, particularly among the young, belonging to causes may provide some limited social connection. However, causes can only provide a limited amount of love, meaning and purpose. Our government and political organizations value us as citizens, not as children of God. Exercise classes, hobby groups, and other groups have similar limitations. Human beings were never meant to live as isolated individuals bound together only by work and the laws of a society. We were meant for deep, loving, wise, relationships.

Unfortunately, at just the moment in human history when the relational, family aspect of the local church is most needed, two factors have limited the ability of the church to respond to that need. First, over generations, churches have assumed that the loving community of the church would automatically permeate its fellowship. When most people lived in small towns, had relatively strong families, and attended churches in which their families had long and strong connections, church community grew naturally. Pastors and seminaries did not think that they needed to focus on the creation of life transforming fellowship as a particularly important duty of the local congregation. They assumed it would happen as a result of the teaching and worship ministries of the congregation. The massive transfer of population to major cities and the decline of small, community churches put an end to the possibility that this strategy could work.

Secondly, for most of the 20th Century, the major Christian denominations, including my own, increasingly developed a corporate model of church operation and a professional model of pastoral formation. At the very moment when the sheer size and complexity of our culture was forcing people to live in large cities and in anonymous neighborhoods, and the natural ability of people to find spiritual nurture was declining, the church was developing a way of doing church that was not able to adapt to the changing reality of the lives of people.

Finally, in the past many young people were not particularly active in church during their immediate post high school and college years, but when they had children, many of them returned to local congregations. Unfortunately, these uyoung people are delaying families longer and longer, and while they are delaying family formation, they are constantly bombarded with images of churches as judgmental, corrupt, only interested in money, and backward. Therefore, when confronted by the need for meaning, purpose, and community, they are unlikely to seek out the church for an answer to their deepest needs.

The only way to respond to this deep need in contemporary society is to focus attention on the process of building life transforming community and making and growing disciples within that community.

Personal Relationships are Essential

In the last chap-er we developed the idea that, as Christians, we celebrate a God who exists in an intimate, self-giving, life transforming relationship. God not only reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in some mysterious way, God exists as one essential being in three distinct persons. These persons exist in an unbroken relationship with one another in the perfect love of the Godhead. In other words, God exists in a community (a family) of self-giving mutual love. Within the self-giving community of love, there exists both individuality and relationship. This has profound implications for the Christian life:

  1. If God exists in a relationship of love, then there is no being a Christian without being in a relationship of love. As persons who are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we were made for deep, loving, wise, and powerful life changing relationships – with God, with other persons and with creation.
  2. The church is to be made up of people who are in relationship with one another. A church that is merely a place for so inclined people to meet on Sunday morning sit in pews, sing and listen to a talk, is not the kind of church God God meant the church to be a place where people are in relationship with God and with one another. A church is not a worship service. A church is a group of disciples called to live together and demonstrate to the world God’s love.
  3. Since God is love, and the same love he showed when he “sent his only son” (John 3:16) exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is only as we exist in communities of love that the Church can be the body of Christ it was intended to be. This love is not a love based upon attractiveness, or other human qualities or worthiness. It is a pure self-giving love, which Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross.
  4. Finally, the very names of the divine person: Father, Son and Holy Spirit encourage us to see God existing as a family. This is exactly the relationship Jesus claims and models with his disciples. When Jesus says that he desires the disciples to be one just as the Father and he are one (John 17:20-21), he is praying that we might enter the family of God and become participants in the self-giving love of God. In other words, he is making us part of his family. When John calls believers, “Children of God” (I john 3:1), he indicates that by faith in Christ and participation in his body, reflecting the love of God in our lives and in our life together, we become part of God’s family.

We cannot live wisely on the journey of life without being in community with people who are also on the journey of living with love, wisdom, humility, and a great desire to be be in community with God, with others, and with creation itself.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Most Essential Group

For most of my time as a Christian layperson and Minister, the churches I was a member or pastor of placed a lot of emphasis on small groups. Over the years, small group formation has been an important part of many, many vital congregations. If your church is like mine and those I’ve served, then you have Bible Study groups, prayer groups, “life groups,” caring groups, service and mission groups, etc. All these groups are important, but the variety and number of small groups available in many congregations can blind us to the most important group of all, what I will call the “Discipleship Formation Group” or “Discipleship Group.”.

Jesus gave us one command: Go and make disciples. Disciples are not listeners who sit passively taking in Bible studies, sermons, worship services, or the results of others’ ministries. Disciples are not simply cognitive learners who memorize Bible verses, theological ideas, and other aspects of the Christian life. Disciples are not simply people who are moved by worship. Disciples are not merely, as Kierkegaard put it, “Admirers of God.”

Disciples are those who, in their day-to-day lives, bring others into God’s Kingdom of Wisdom and Love, sharing the Good News of what God was doing in Jesus Christ with others, and  themselves helping others come to Christ, learn to obey Christ, and follow Christ in their own lives. Disciples learn, pray, and worship for a reason: To become more like Christ and to share God’s invitation to join with Christ and others in the task of bringing the Kingdom of God into the world so that the world can enjoy the harmony, peace, and joy for which the world and the human race were created.

Not long ago I read a critique of the church and of pastors. The writers point was that too often churches and pastors have treated their job as to attract people to come and listen, listen to the music, liturgy, sermon, and sacraments, give a little money, and return home “fed” for the week. When I read this, I recognized it was true. We focus too much on bringing people into the Church as an institution and too little time discipling people to go out into the world and share God’s love with others. We spend too much time trying to make Christian faith easy, culturally relevant, and personally meaningful and not enough time teaching people to “obey all that I have commanded you” and go into the world helping others overcome the impact of sin and death in their own lives and in the lives of others and in their communities, families, jobs, etc.

If Churches and Christians  are going to effectively do a better job of discipling people in the climate of Western society, then we have to deeply rethink the idea of the “Program Church.” In a way, the Church of Christ should have just one program: in everything to obey Christ, incarnate Christ, and share the love of Christ with others. Programs and membership are not an end. They are a means to accomplish the Great Commission. Our programs are not unimportant, but they are only a means. The goal is to make disciples who make disciples.

This is why Kathy and I wrote the study, Salt & Light: to help our church and hopefully other congregations  focus on becoming “Disciplemaking Disciples.” Salt & Light is not the only way this can be accomplished. It is but one way. It is the elements of Salt & Light that must, we think, become a part of the basic thrust behind what Churches do in all the variety of their programming:

  1. Bring people to Christ.
  2. Train them to  follow and be like Christ.
  3. Empower them to share Christ with others.

I can imagine a number of Bible studies, small groups, prayer groups, care groups, marriage groups, mission groups, etc. that incorporate the principles of disciple-making into their structure and organization .Once again, the exact method is not so important as the focus on bringing people to Christ, helping them to learn to follow Christ, and empowering new disciples to share Christ, embody Christ in their own lives wherever God takes them.

To disciple people the way Jesus discipled people is to gather people into a long-term relationship that may actually last years in which they, like the original disciples, meet Jesus, follow Jesus, watch how Jesus lives and works in the lives of others, and then reach out and share the wisdom and love of God with others. Discipleship is a process and a relationship with God, not a decision we make and thereafter work on by ourselves when it fits our purposes and needs.

There is no other way to be in relationship than to be in a small group of Christians who are also on the journey of following Jesus, learning to be more like Jesus, and calling others into a relationship with Jesus and helping them grow. Therefore, the Most Essential Group in every Christian church is the intentional discipleship making and empowering group, what we  all a “Disciple Group.” Groups such as “Salt and Light Groups” are and should be at the center of fulfilling the Great Commission and therefore at the center of every Christian fellowship.

Kathy and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Scotland. We thank al those who made it possible. As we drove through town after town we passed the once homes of congregations whose buildings have been turned into public buildings or retail establishments. We toured the ruins of once mighty abbeys and cathedrals. Many of the members of the orders who formed the abbeys and cathedrals we toured lived in violent times of persecution of their faith and orders. Nevertheless, they were faithful. Looking at ruins and repurposed buildings reminded me of this truth: the church is not a building. It is people who have been called into a relationship with God and who are faithfully living out that relationship in their day-to-day lives. The world can tear down or empty buildings. It cannot tear down the Kingdom of God in a single human life.

Currently, we inhabit a society that is running away from God as fast as it can possibly do so. Our job, like the job of countless others in history is  to be faithful and  share in word and deed the Good News that God loves even those who have strayed far, far away. God loves our sinful, fallen, reckless society. God loves his enemies and our enemies. God loved them and us enough to send his Son into the world, and He continues to send his Beloved Son into the world through the lives of those who love, follow, and obey Him.

The business of disciplemaking is not just the job of religious professionals and a few talented laypersons. It is the job of all Christians. We are all called to be “Salt & Light to others.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

 

Come Follow Me

All the Gospels portray the calling of the disciples in one way or another. All the Biblical records have this in common: Jesus called the disciples into a personal relationship with God through him. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James and John amid their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior.” He did not ask for a mere intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment that would involve mind, heart, body, and soul. He might as well have said, “Stop what you are doing. Leave your old accustomed way of life. Leave the books you are reading right where they are. Stop going to your therapist. Make your hobbies, families, and work secondary. Then, follow me.” He even offered them a new occupation: From now on they would not fish for fish; they would fish for people.

Too often modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. Too often in our evangelism and discipleship we simply ask people to make a verbal statement of faith. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being. Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life.

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was. More importantly, he wanted them to spend time with him, follow him, and become more like him. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. He knew it would take personal commitment on their part and on his part. He even knew it would require a cross.

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if came and personally asked us to follow him, we would find it easier to follow than after hearing a pastor, evangelist, or friend share what God has done in their lives and ask us if we are ready to follow Jesus. This is a mistake.

The disciples had it just as hard as we do. They had families. They had friendships. They had hobbies. They had occupations. They already had a religion. They probably went to synagogue in Capernaum if there was one. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had even less information than we have. One day, when they were out fishing or getting ready to fish, a man came up to them and asked them to follow him and become fishers of human beings..

Deciding to Follow Jesus

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed. Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, the disciples saw something important in Jesus and decided it was worth the risk of following. They did not have it easier than we do. In fact, they may have had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care.

We have the examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and hosts of others. We have reason to know what God can do with one ordinary life. When Jesus called the disciples the cross, resurrection, and spreading of the gospel, the birth of the church, the example of the martyrs, the evangelization of the world, had not occurred. It was all to come. They had to look in the traveling Rabbi’s eyes and answer the question, “Will I follow Him or not?” So do we.

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to respond to the call to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we must ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked. We must ask if are we willing to be committed to follow Jesus. When we ask another person if they are ready to become a Christian, we need to be careful not to make it sound too easy. We probably should not say, “Are you ready to believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to be follow Jesus?” Eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, membership in the family of God, citizenship in the kingdom of God depend upon our being willing to follow Jesus, not tell people we believe in Jesus.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard puts it this way, “Jesus does not need admirers. He needs imitators.” In the ancient world a disciple was more than just a learner. A disciple followed his master and imitated his master. While learning is a large part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christ’s living as he lived and doing the same kind of things he did. A follower of Jesus will have certain characteristics, the most important of which is that followers of Jesus try to become like Jesus and in becoming like Jesus we believe we become more like God. Our goal, as the Eastern orthodox put it is “theosis.” We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christianity is not just knowing who Jesus is, a few Bible verses, and three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus the Christ and his way of life. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together, of discovering and using spiritual gifts, of healing our broken world, and speaking truth into the darkness of a world too often governed by lies. Being a Christian is learning to bear a cross now and again. We can only learn these things as we do them. We cannot be a disciple or learn to be a disciple any other way but by following Jesus, watching and listening to Jesus, and acting and living like Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Counting the Cost

One of the most famous Christian books of the 20th Century is by the Christian teacher, pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” He begins his book with these words, “Cheap Grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for  costly grace”. [1] If these words were true in Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War, they are even truer today.

Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace in this way:

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principal, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception of God.” An intellectual assent to the idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins.”  [2]

He later describes the calling of the disciples in these words, “The call goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience.” [3]

One dangerous failure of churches today is a failure to understand that the Gospel is not primarily a system of doctrine, a theology of Grace, or a formula of verbal and mental acceptance to propositions about God, Jesus, and Eternal Life. The word we translate “Faith” could also be translated as “Trust”. Real faith is seen in obedience to Christ and in responding in faith to the pressures of daily life. Real faith is seen in disciples who follows Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by doing certain liturgical actions one could be saved as if by magic. The Reformation was a corrective to the excesses of the Middle Ages. Today, among evangelical churches, indeed among all churches, there is a need to correct the notion that faith is merely accepting a proposition about Jesus, getting your admission ticket to heaven punched, and then living as you always lived in reliance on the Cheap Grace of God. If it was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, Cheap Grace is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus. It is a call to respond by committing one’s self to God in such a way that we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, imitate Jesus, and grow to become more like Jesus. This includes cross-bearing. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We cannot be disciples without becoming like Jesus and being willing to experience what Jesus experienced, for good or for bad. We cannot become like God unless we are willing to give our lives for others in self-giving love.

Crosses are not difficulties. Crosses are not the consequences of our own behavior and choices. Crosses are the decisions we make to suffer for others though we are not required to by law, or compulsion, or some inner brokenness. Jesus went to the cross because God loves us, and Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins and brokenness on the cross. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally.

Years ago, I was a lay leader in a large congregation. A problem arose. As time went by, I came to think that my closest friends, those I was theologically most in sympathy with, and those with whom I wanted to side were not adopting the right strategy, and therefore were behaving improperly. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side, which I did not believe was acting properly either. It was the first time as a Christian I ever had to go against the very people who were most important in my life and to my Christian walk. It was a time of personal suffering. During this time, God taught me an important lesson: Being a disciple does not exempt us from being misunderstood, misquoted, slandered, and otherwise deeply hurt.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty years and a Christian for well over 35 years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader knows that following Jesus does not exempt you from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say to leaders, every time God desires to do something really important in this world, someone carries a cross.

The Role of Faith

From the beginning, Jesus warned his disciples what belief in him meant. Think of Abraham. God called Abraham to leave his homeland on the basis of the promise of a son and blessing. Abraham left his homeland because he believed. He trusted God, believed that God would be faithful to his promises, and so Abraham acted on that belief. When Jesus called potential disciples to come and follow him, he was asking them to show the same kind of trust/faith that Abraham had.

Mark begins his gospel with Jesus proclaiming the good news and telling his hearers to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:14). The faith of which Jesus speaks is more than knowing Jesus is right. It is moving out in faith, trusting in the wisdom and love of God. It requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus we will trust him, move out, and live like him trusting that a life of loving service to others is the best way of life there is.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the Gospel that can only be accepted by faith. He teaches the principle that people cannot earn their salvation. He is correct: We cannot be justified by our moral behavior or by following the moral law (Galatians 2:16). However, Paul goes on to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Responding to the cross means dying to self and selfish desire (“I have been crucified with Christ”) and then living by the power of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). Faith means responding by giving our whole selves to God, turning away from our selfish, self-centered ways, and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith inevitably results in works. This is why in Ephesians, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our works do not save us, but when we believe we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be more loving, more caring, more truthful, than we were before. God does not save us because of our works; he saves us so that we can become capable of living like Jesus and doing the works Jesus does.

Faith and Works as a Personal Journey

There is a lot of confusion in our society and in our churches about the nature of faith. Is faith merely recognizing who Jesus is and calling upon him so that you can go to heaven when you die? Does faith simply believe Jesus is who Jesus said he was? The answer is, “No.” The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The story begins with Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of many nations and have an heir if he goes to the land of the promise God will show him (Genesis 12:1-3). The Bible tells us that Abraham believed and went. In other words, he trusted God not just with his mind (“OK, God I know you can to this”) but also with his heart, soul, mind, body and strength. Abraham went and followed God in the wilderness for years because of his faith. As James reminds those who think faith can be divorced from works, Abrahams faith was revealed and completed by his works (James 2:14-26). A faith that does not change the way we think, live, act, and feel is not a faith at all.

When Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” Jesus means just what he says. He wants us to follow him because we believe that he holds the secret to our becoming the people we were created to become. Our faith is shown in our discipleship. The person who believes one thing and does another can never be psychologically or personally whole. To have integrity, to be whole, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits have to be one. Only then can we be a whole person.

The life of faith is a life of transformation. We are slowly being made whole as we gradually become the people we profess to be. As what we believe in our minds becomes imbedded in our hearts, our emotions and how we behave automatically change. This is the work of grace we call sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which what we believe and how we live become one thing in one life.

This is the journey of faith. Just as Abraham went on a journey with God, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith. It is journey of following Jesus and therefore God through a process of discipleship and spiritual growth. It means following Jesus where Jesus goes, with companions (other disciples) who are also following Jesus and listening to the Words of Jesus spoken in the Bible in our hearts through prayer. It means doing what Jesus did and is doing in the world. It means making a few mistakes along the way, just as the disciples made mistakes, correcting those mistakes and growing along the way.

As with any journey, there are and will be twists and turns, blind allies, and mistaken paths.
A few years ago, a close friend and I walked five days of a pilgrimage, the El Camino de Santiago. The path of the pilgrimage is marked with the sign of sea shells. Occasionally the path may not be precisely marked or one may miss a marker or a marker may have been obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us on the last day when we were very tired and ready for the journey to be over. We had to walk back a mile or so to where we left the path and begin again.

This happens over and over again on the journey of following Jesus. We cannot always see Jesus. Sometimes the way is obscured. Sometimes the thorns and thistles of our culture make the way hard to see and find. Sometimes we misread the signs God has given us in Scripture. When that happens, we retrace our steps (ask for forgiveness and make amends) find the place we went off the path, and begin again. God in his mercy knows that we will need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, God because of his steadfast love for us will bring us safely through the journey. This is why Paul could say with confidence to those he was discipling, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1”6).

Copyright 2017, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: McMillan, 1937), 45

[2] Id.

[3] Id, at 61.

The Blessed Life )Part 3)

This is the final installment of the Blessed Life. If we are to truly be disciples of Jesus, we must be fully convinced, as the Apostles were truly convinced that following Jesus is the way to the Blessed Life.

The New Testament

By the time of Jesus, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way seen from the perspective of the prophets. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was to be achieved by participating in the rituals and festivals of Israel and in making the proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was to be achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following that law as best one could. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law those who took the Old Testament seriously, had developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life and achieve the blessed life.

For the religious few, this form of life gave meaning and purpose. However, for the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees was complicated and unachievable. Certain forms of modern Christianity bear a resemblance to the situation. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives around biblical principles. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. The life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable.

When Jesus for Joseph walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary men to become his followers, he brought something new. The blessed life was not to be achieved merely by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship, and blessed life it entails, was to be a matter of a living relationship with the God who is the source of wisdom and love. First and foremost, Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the primary aspect of this relationship is a personal commitment, a commitment that we call faith. The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

Just as in a marriage (or any other human relationship) not every day, week, month, or year is characterized by good feelings, so it will be true of our relationship with God in Christ. Perhaps even more challenging is Jesus’ warning that following him will entail sacrifice and even suffering. “If anyone would come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Following Jesus may involve not just discomfort, but true suffering and sacrifice. There will be blessing, but that blessing will not eliminate the reality of suffering and even undeserved suffering.

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, or victory over opposition. The cross, and the suffering crucified Messiah, revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience. This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

So then, what is the blessed life? First of all, the truly blessed life is a life lived in fellowship with God, nature, and others. It is a life lived in solidarity with the external world, as we human beings recover the stewardship of creation for which human beings were made. It is a life of restored interpersonal relationships, as the personal and social alienation caused by pride, selfishness, and self-seeking is overcome. The blessed life is a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. It is a life of restored communion with God.

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves personal, emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that we human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is a life of steadfast, self-giving love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives. It is life of wisdom, for Christians believe that the wisdom of God was personally present in Jesus and his teachings embody a true wisdom.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [1] Certainly our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction. Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life,” the “Happy Life” as some translations put it cannot be found in having more things, achieving greater success, experiencing greater pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society, and every other society, have always been and are today misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life?

In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, there were those who desired to experience the blessed life. In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people had misconceptions about what it would be like to live blessedly. The Jews, just like modern Americans, were inclined to suppose that those with sufficient material blessings and economic and political security to relax and enjoy life would experience the blessed life. The Jews, just like many modern Americans, were inclined to believe that if only their own particular political opinion and preferred form of government could be achieved, their lives would be blessed. Jesus came to deconstruct that entire way of thinking.

Jesus knew that we human beings seldom change our behavior until we experience what life might be like if we only adopted another pattern of behavior. Therefore, he was not content to simply think  or teach about the blessed life. Jesus lived out the blessed life for all the world to see. In order that we human beings might see the blessed life, he called disciples who lived with him and observed him. They did not know it at the time, but they were experiencing the blessed life and being trained to share that blessed life with others.

If people in contemporary society could achieve the blessed life by reading about the blessed life, our society would indeed be a blessed society– the many self-help book published each year would guarantee blessedness. There are books about how to lose weight, gain weight, exercise, take vitamins, diet, think and grow rich, retire early, become more physically able to defend ourselves, find peace with God or the Ultimate (however you visualize it)— in fact there are books about anything and everything we might do to achieve the blessed life on our own terms. It is been my experience, and the experience of most people who’ve tried these books, that they don’t work. Why?

It is because we human beings do not need more books on the blessed life. We need to experience the blessed life. We need to experience what it is to live wisely. We need to experience what it is like to live in healthy relationships with other people. We need to experience what it is like to love others with what the Bible calls “steadfast love” or “agape love,” that is the self giving, long-suffering, faithful love of God. In order for us to see, there must be disciples who follow Jesus and to now know not just from reading books but from experience how to live the blessed life.

We know from Scripture that the disciples did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. We know that until after his cross and resurrection they did not fully understand just exactly whose disciples they had been. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of discipleship training. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life.

We cannot expect people in our time to be any different. Relational understanding comes slowly. It requires time, practice, mistakes, correction, teaching, patience, and all the other attributes of discipleship. The reason Jesus created and lived in relationship with his disciples during his entire earthly ministry was because that is the way, and the only way, people can truly change and be transformed. In our day and time, we are experiencing a crisis of discipleship precisely because we have not done a particularly good job of discipling others into a living relationship with God. The crisis will not abate until we give up the idea that better marketing, worship, or programming can achieve real change. Real change involves a return to Way of Jesus.

[1] Francis Schaeffer, How the blessed life.geall at once iworld Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture Rev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Part 2 of The Blessed Life

This is the second in a series of three posts on the blessed life. In the book on discipleship, they form one chapter. This week focuses on the nature of blessing in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects a clear understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift of God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to the man and woman implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can appreciate the blessings of God. The story of the fall contained in Genesis reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse is not the abusive action of an angry God, but the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God for the self-centeredness of sin—a path that inevitably leads to alienation and suffering and a way from blessing. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now must roam the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [1] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring and renewing His intended blessing on the human race.

The story recorded in Genesis reaches a decisive moment when God calls Abram into a new and special relationship with God. When the Lord calls Abram to leave his country, his people, and those of his household left behind, he promises:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abraham is a blessing not just for his family. It is a blessing for the entire would to flow from the restoration of Abraham and his family. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. Throughout Genesis, over and over again, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is a blessing continually extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14).

In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by happiness. The blessed life is dependent upon the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all blessings. It is God that establishes his covenant with Israel. It is God who establishes his covenant with David. It is God who promises to bless Israel and the house of David. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the person who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on His instructions day and night.

Such a  person is like a tree planted by streams of water,  which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever he or she does prospers.

Not so the wicked!  They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,  nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

By the time the book of Psalms was written, the people of Israel had come to understand that the blessed life is also a life of righteousness and of following the instructions of the Lord God. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also the blessing that comes with obedience to the instructions God is provided for his people. God has revealed in nature and in his word a way of life that leads to blessing.

Those who follow the way of wickedness and live contrary to God’s will, can never be blessed. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature continues this same idea: the blessed life is a life lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws. Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,  those who gain understanding, for wisdom is more profitable than silver  and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;  nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand;  in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed (Proverbs 3:13-18).

 The blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings and wisdom. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are to be found by those who find wisdom, a wisdom God imbedded in the universe he created. Thus, the wisdom writers go on to say:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,  by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

The blessed life is a life filled with the kind of wisdom that can only come from God and from a life lived in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s creative wisdom, listens to it daily, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of trustful, faithful obedience to God (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the kind of deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14).

The prophets also teach that the blessed life is a gift from God. If wisdom literature emphasizes that the blessed life is the result of wisdom, the Prophets teach that the blessed life is a result of following the will of God. The end of the Kingdom of David, the failure of Israel to retain its freedom and independence, their defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their exile to Babylon were all interpreted by the prophets as a judgment for their lack of faithfulness to the God of Abraham. As a result of their apostasy, God removed his blessing from them, and allowed a terrible judgment to come upon them. The people of God forfeited the blessed life.

If the receipt of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God of Israel and lives according to God’s commands. Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel did return to faithfulness to the LORD, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. They will then be blessed once again.

In Isaiah, for example, the prophet speaks of the coming of a “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for the people of Israel (Isaiah 32:1). People will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). For those who refuse to follow God’s instructions and will, there will be suffering (vv. 6-15). Then, at the end of the prophetic vision, Isaiah speaks these words:

The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,  his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;  its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,  in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, how blessed you will be,  sowing your seed by every stream,and letting your cattle and donkeys range free (Isaiah 32:16-20).

The blessings of God impact the moral and the physical well being of God’s people.

The Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [2] Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of unusual blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The language of Genesis 1 and 9 are nearly identical, indicating God’s divine intention remains the same for the fallen human race as it was for the human race at its creation.

[2] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

The Blessed Life (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of three on Discipleship and the Blessed Life. Comments appreciated. 

We live in an unusual age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much in terms of material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from such anxiety about life, the future, about their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level of consumption, and about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but most notably in the United States, the leader of the so-called “free world,” demonstrate a profound lack of trust in the institutions that provide for them the highest standard of living in human history. For Christians, most sadly, fewer and fewer of these same young people live as disciples of Christ. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Almost every social commentator, Christian or non-Christian, liberal or conservative, traditionalist or radical, notes that there is something deeply sick and decadent about our society. Almost no day goes past without someone publishing an artice with a title like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” Each of these articles focus on some indication that there is something deeply wrong with our society. These commentators just do not agree on what is wrong or what to do about it.

One reason we have so much trouble in resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The Good Life is the life that results in happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, and self-sacrifice will lead to a better life. Some people believe that government will help in some way to create this better life, and some people believe it will be created by private industry, but almost everyone believes in a kind of earthly messianic kingdom that meets our human expectations and desires. [1]

Just as the Jews were wrong when they reduced the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by an anointed Son of David, when we reduce the gospel to a political agenda we are always wrong.  In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world can or will ever know.

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Jesus never talked to his disciples about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, of attaining a degree of physical beauty, of staying healthy, of acquiring wealth, of getting ahead in the world, of maintaining the current geopolitical balance of power, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. He did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

His teachings concerning what it means to have a blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. It is thus surprising that more young people have not been attracted to the teachings of the Master. Perhaps it is because the churches and Christians have done a poor job of representing Christ to the world. When people in our society use the word “blessed” in any of its forms, it almost always is about something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” I am blessed with four children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on an on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

Jesus, on the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [2]

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves that we acquire. Instead it is something within ourselves that we experience. Furthermore, because of the nature of the blessing—the fact that the truly blessed life is not something we would naturally seek, we can only receive it as a gift from God.

Natural reason alone will not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life. It was true in Jesus’ day; and, it is true in our day. The blessed life must be received by faith from God. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone under the inspiration of God will have to tell us about it and show us what it looks like. That is why Christ came.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good (New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.

[2] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22.

Living as Children of the Light

It is the Saturday before Easter.  I am taking a break from Salt&Light to meditate on Easter. As Matthew begins his description of the events of Easter Sunday, he records the following:

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men (Matthew 28:2-4).

The resurrection was accompanied then and now by the appearance of the Uncreated Light of God.

 The Importance of Light.

Light has always intrigued human beings. Almost all ancient religions have some form of Sun God, a God who is worshiped as a source of light. Light has also always been associated with the eternal. Light has always been associated with truth, when speak of “a light going off in our brains,” we refer to the experience of solving a puzzle. When someone knows a truth, we call him, “enlightened.” This word is used, in Buddhism to refer to a person who has come to understand the suffering of the world and the true and best way of escape. Jews and Christians have always thought of God as dwelling in light. We see this in the visions of Isaiah and Daniel in the Old Testament and in the visions of John at the end of the New Testament in Revelation, where God is pictured on a throne in heaven with lightning streaming out from his being. Paul is blinded at his conversion by an experience of the light of the Risen Christ.

The period of time which began in Europe about 300 years ago, when human beings first began developing modern science and technology, is often referred to as the “enlightenment,” because it was at that moment that humans shook off the superstition that was felt to characterize the Middle Ages and begin to be able to understand and manipulate the workings of the physical universe in a new and more powerful way using science and technology. The founders of the Enlightenment felt that the human race was experiencing liberation from the darkness of superstition.

This blog is about the Christian notion that God is Light, that the True Light of God was revealed to us in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ; that we  become children of Light by faith in Christ and can, therefore, live according to that Light. The empty tomb is the source of Light, for the dark door of death has been destroyed by the One who is the True Light of the World.

Walking in the Light.

In the  First Letter of John, he says the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:5-10).

Father of Lights, in whom there is no darkness, come by the Light of your Word this Easter to enlighten our minds and warm our hearts, convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In the Name of the True Light who came into the World and by whose power we may li e forever we pray, Amen.

The Bible Teaches that God is Light

I don’t know that there is a more important source of  encouragement  than the simple phrase, “God is Light and in him there is no darkness” (I John 1:5). As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, almost all religions in some way associated light with the divine, but in the Old and New Testaments we have a distinctly Judeo-Christian evolution of this notion. For the Jew, God cannot be represented by any created thing, there can be no idols, no visible symbols of the invisible God, so it came natural to the Jews that God was a blinding Uncreated Light. Light  is invisible until it touches and illuminates something. When we speak about the being of God in Three Persons, one of the images often used is the image of the Sun. God the Father, who cannot be seen is like the hidden nuclear reactions in the center of the Sun. Christ, the Word of God, is like the rays of light coming from the Sun. The Holy Spirit is like the heat of the Sun when it touches our face and arms.

The Apostle John begins his gospel by equating the Incarnate Jesus Christ with the Eternal Word, which is the Light of God’s perfect rationality:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5).

This equation of Christ with the uncreated Word of God, a Word that exists before time, and a word that enlightens the human race by showing us what it means to be truly and rationally human sits at the foundation of John’s view of who Jesus the Christ was (see, John 1:4, 5, 9; 3:19).  Jesus refers to himself as the “Light” (see, John 8:12; 9:5). Paul also uses the same image when he speaks of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). In all these passages, and more, Jesus the Christ is said to be, to actually be, the personal, physical manifestation of the Uncreated Light of God, an uncreated light. [1]

The actual being of God as Uncreated Light has deep implications for our notion of God. God is not capricious. If a God of Uncreated Divine Light created the laws of the universe,  the universe can expected to be  orderly. God is not without a witness.  So, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). Not only is the physical universe a scene of light, but so is the moral universe, for God’s light is seen in his law and in the moral order that he has created. So, the writer of Psalm 119 can declare, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).

There is no affirmation we make more important than the affirmation that God is Light, for that is our declaration to the world that it need not be a place of intellectual, moral, or aesthetic darkness, but a place of light. The God of Light has imbued his creation with Light, and has sent his Son as the True Light that shows us how to faithfully live within his beautiful and meaningful creation.

The Bible also teaches that we are Children of Light.

In today’s text, John urges Christians to “walk in the light” (I John 1:7). In Ephesians, Paul writes, “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the Light” (Ephesians 5:8). In Thessalonians, Paul refers to Christians as “sons of the Light” (I Thessalonians 5:5). When Christians, by faith, receive Christ, we receive the Light of God into our hearts and minds. Our “conversion” is a conversion from darkness to light, from being children of the Fall, to being children reborn in fellowship with God, from being those who follow a way of darkness in self seeking, to those who seek the light in following Christ.

As a result of the Fall, we human beings have hearts that are darkened (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:18). As a result of our selfishness and self seeking, we walk in a kind of moral and spiritual darkness. When Christ comes into our lives, it is as if we have been removed from a dark room into light.

Years ago, when I was a camp counselor, we often went exploring in caves. Now, these caves were usually not very large, and we entered the caves through narrow passages in the land around the camp. We would squeeze trough an opening and crawl some distance in a narrow passage before entering the first room of the cave. There were often times when we could not even use a flashlight for a time as we wiggled our way through the tunnel. I can tell you, I hated it. But, when you got to the first room, where other counselors had already come, you could see in the light of their flashlights. If you were the first person through, your light suddenly light up the cave and you could see the lovely formations of stalactites’ and stalagmites.

The experience of opening up to the light of God is like entering that first room in a cave and turning on a flashlight. Suddenly we are able to see, really see the Truth of God’s Word, the Goodness of God’s Law, and the Beauty of God and of God’s creation. The presence of God in our lives acts as a light, illuminating the world and illuminating our lives, so that we can see the Good, the True and the Beautiful. By the power of the resurrection light of Christ, we can become illuminated with the wisdom of God, the goodness of God, and the beauty of God. All this is the gift of the True Light.

The Darkness that Remains is an Impediment to the Light.

Of course, if we are honest, we know that  the Light will expose something else: darkness. the darkness of our souls. John says, “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). To experience the Light is recognize its absence and the darkness that inevitably accompanies the absence of light. The Psychologist Carl Jung speaks of each person as having a “shadow self,” a dark side. This selfish, instinctual, driven, dark side is a moral problem. [2] Although this dark side can never be totally eliminated, it can be recognized, brought to the light, acknowledged, and integrated into the larger self.

For Christians, the process of sanctification is a process of overcoming the dark side, the sinful side, of our personalities. The first step, and a continuing step, is the process of acknowledging that it is there. For the light to do its moral work in our lives, we must allow it to illuminate the darkness.

Light has many qualities, one of which is that it is one of the very best disinfectants there is. When our family used to go to Montreal, North Caroline,  we sometimes rented cabins full of mildew. We could not live in a mildew infested house. When a house is infested with mildew, one of the best things to do is to get the sheets and the furniture out into the sun, for the sun will get rid of the mildew. Our sin is a lot like mildew. Once exposed and brought to light, it begins to die as Light of God’s presence strikes our souls and begins to warm our cold hearts to a better way of life. Once the light of Christ, exposes the smell of our sin, its light begins to remove the dark stink of the smell of sin in our lives.

Our Mission is to Share God’s Light.

Christian truth is not a merely abstract truth. Christian truth is an embodied truth. God did not send us an instruction manual for living. He sent us his Only Begotten Son, full of grace and truth. An embodied truth is one that must be lived, not simply understood. When John urges his readers to “walk in the light” (v. 7) he is saying to them, “Live your life in such a way that the world will see the light in all that you are and to in your day to day life.”

Scholars point out that when the Middle Ages ended, and the modern secular state emerged, gradually religion shifted from being the organizing principle of all of life, to being a matter of personal religious experience and choice. Gradually, ever so gradually, “faith” became something private, something connected to a person’s inner self. Faith lost its connection with the outer world of life, of business, of politics, and of education. Even those who claimed to be Christian lived and acted just like everyone else.

The great British founder of the Gospel and Culture Movement, Lesslie Newbigin, wrote a book under the title, “Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth”. [3] In this book, Newbigin reminds his readers that if we believe that the Incarnate Word is the truth made flesh, then we must live according to that truth, willing to be different than those around us, and we must be willing to proclaim that truth publically in word and deed, for truth that is not proclaimed is not a truth.

We have done a lot of talking about what it means to be a “missional congregation”. Being missional is not a matter of going on mission trips, though our mission trips are important. Being missional is not a matter of how much money we give to missions, though supporting our missionaries is important. Being “missional” is a matter of being about proclaiming in word and deed, in all of life, as we go from this place into our society our confidence that the love and mercy of God, which was revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate truth about God and forms the ultimate ground of what it means to really, truly human.

Conclusion

All advances in human civilization come with some kind of  cost, and no advance is without problems. In the case of our scientific culture, one cost of our overly analytical culture can be a loss of confidence that there is something that is true. When we doubt everything, it is hard to believe in anything. Beneath the ultra-competiveness of our culture, of our business, of our politics, even of our churches, lies a deep darkness. This darkness is born of the fear that nothing is true, that everything is really about power. It is about do I and those who agrees with me, get to have our way? In such a world, there is no greater gift Christians can offer the world than the gift of faith in the transcendent reality of the God of Light, who stands as the ultimate guarantor and source of all truth, a truth we can never know completely, but which he graciously reveals all honest seekers, and which became one of us in the person of Jesus.

At the end of the book of Revelation, when John talks about the new heaven and new earth, he says that there is no need of a sun in this new world, for God himself will be its light, “They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light” (Revelation 22:5). This is our ultimate proclamation, that in a world of confusion and darkness, where it is hard to know what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, what is just, what is kind, we can know that the Eternal Light of God is here, and will be here, and there will come a day, when our struggle with darkness will be over, and the world will be filled with his Uncreated Light.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Thomas F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002):15.

[2] Anthony Storr, ed, The Essential Jung: Selected Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983):91.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Geneva and Grand Rapids, MI: World Council of Churches & Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.

Life in the Ruins

This week the post focuses on the dystopic nature of modern society as the modern world decays. This decay is particularly important for Americans to understand because American culture is a direct result of the so-called “Enlightenment.” I am not sure that his chapter (this week is part 1) will be in the final book. Nevertheless, it is important for us to understand the cultural roots of our current cultural distress if we are to minister God’s love and mercy in our culture.

Although they  considered themselves to be wise, they became fools…. (Romans 1:22)

One features of many contemporary movies and literature is the prevalence of “ dystopic” visions of the future. When I was in undergraduate school, in my freshman year, I took a course entitled “Utopias and Disutopias. The word, “Utopia” literally means “Nowhere.” A “Utopia” is a vision of a better world that might be. By the same token, a “Disutopia” is a vision of a dark world that might be. Increasingly, the vision of progress that powered Western civilization for 300 years has turned into a dark picture of the world of decay, immorality, violence, chaos, and darkness. For example, recently there was a popular movie called, “Hunger Games.” [1] In his movie, a young girl is forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a competition in which villages send one particular person to compete for food. This movie exemplifies a distinctive feature of modern dystopia’s: fear of an emerging immoral elite (the one percent) who enslave the majority of the people.

Why is it that, at this particular juncture in history, many people, and especially intelligent, perceptive, artistic, and capable people are unable to find meaning and purpose in life? It is, as the Bob Dylan song has it, because, “The Times, They Are A’Changin:”

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ [2]

When Bob Dylan wrote these words, a great culture upheaval was underway in American culture, an upheaval that would irrevocably change America, and the institutions of modern society. The United States, and indeed the victorious parties in the Second World War began the second half of the 20th Century with a sense of victory and endless possibilities. Neverheless, beneath the surface optimism and confidence, the pillars upon which Western Culture had been built for almost 300 years were rapidly being undermined.

The tumultuous events of the 1960’s and beyond exposed the hollow caverns of emptiness and despair that lurked just beneath the surface. Contemporary Western culture is a paradoxical mixture of Greco-Roman philosophical ideas and Judeo-Christian spirituality and ethics given its current form by the events of what philosophers and social critics call, the “Enlightenment.” About 300 years ago, under the influence of the emergence of modern science and technology, the nations of Europe entered a new era.

This era called, “The Modern World” was characterized by confidence in human reason, faith in the power of science and technology to both understand the universe and provide solutions to myriad human problems that had vexed humanity for millennia, a kind of secular utopian vision of a perfect world, and confidence that human ethics could be reduced to universally acceptable, reasonable principles upon which all rational people would agree. The deists promised a rational religion of peace. For a time, this World View and its program for progress seemed irrefutable.

The term “Enlightenment” was coined in France, which at the beginning of the 19th Century, under the impact of the radical implications of the Enlightenment attempted to create a perfect secular, post religious society. The result was slaughter and madness. Nevertheless, as the 19th Century progressed, problems began to develop in the Enlightenment program. Within a short period of time, certain philosophers noted that reason alone did not seem to satisfy the human need for meaning, and so a romantic revolt emerged emphasizing the emotional and physical importance of human life. Then, the philosopher Nietzsche engaged in a complete attach both upon the Christian religion and on the rational underpinnings of the Enlightenment, emphasizing the Will to Power. The modern world, with its dystopic leanings was born.

The early 20th Century ended whatever optimism was left that human reason and human technology could bring in a millennium of peace, health and plenty. The early 20th Century was punctuated by two World Wars, the second of which resulted in the development of a weapon that could annihilate humanity. The First World War began the destruction of the optimism of Europe and Western Culture. The Second World War, fought because of a brutal dictatorship that emerged in what was Europe’s most advanced nation, ended with Europe in ruins.

America was victorious in both the First and the Second World Wars. It emerged confident of the future and securely positioned to carry on the Enlightenment project. However, in the 1960’s that optimism began to dissipate. The Viet Nam War divided America and caused a generation of young people do doubt our American culture and values. The emergence of birth control and the sexual revolution undermined traditional sexual moral values and traditional family structures. The Nixon presidency and the so-called “Watergate Crisis” undermined faith in American politics and in the integrity of its political system.

In music, in movies, and in the media a kind of moral and cultural darkness began to emerge. We  now live in the ruins of Western culture. Among elites and many, many ordinary people a kind of spiritual and moral darkness has fallen. It is the mission of the church to enter this culture with a gospel of wisdom and love that can repair the ruins of our society.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Hunger Games, dir., Gary Ross; Wr., Gary Ross Suzanne Collins Starring, Jennifer, Josh HutchersonLiam Hemswort (Lionsgate: 2012). The movie is based upon a trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins. In the novels a young woman confronts a terrible future in which the majority of people live in poverty and hunger. Food is at a premium. The annual games reflect the fears many people have about a manipulative and immoral future government ruled by an immoral elite, a common feature of dystopias.

[2] Dylan, Bob. The Times They Are A-changin'. Columbia, 1964.

Introduction: Crisis of Discipleship (Part 1)

This is the first of two weeks that the blog will contain the Introductory Chapter to the book in discipleship I am writing. Comments are much appreciated.

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published a book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]At the very beginning, Bonhoeffer stated his thesis in a way that was prophetic for his own life and for the course of 20th Century discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he says, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] Bonhoeffer went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace which Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Bonhoeffer took up his own cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the war.

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, it is often mentioned, a few of its most famous quotes find their way into sermons and religious books, but Cost of Discipleship is seldom read and even more seldom put into practice. Part of the problem is that the book was written in German, and German is a hard language to translate into English, especially for reader that prefers short sentences and simple words. The book is not easy to read or digest.

The problem of Cheap Grace and a church that dispenses it, is the message and the message of Bonhoeffer’s life. Here is how he describes “Cheap Grace:”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [3]

When a church, denomination, or group dispenses Cheap Grace it is dispensed like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a party at a fraternity party. It costs nothing. Such preaching and such discipleship makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and what committed disciples of Christ live out each day.

Real, true grace is Costly Grace. Bonhoeffer characterized Costly Grace as like the pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44=46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from them with all their heart, and who turns to God with everything they are and possess, this is one who has experienced True Grace. True Grace changes everything.

In a culture addicted to “Cheap Grace” and easy religion, Cost of Discipleship is hard to read. An honest reader stands condemned by almost every word. If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for the church, the problem is exponentially greater today in the post-modern, Western church. Western churches, and perhaps most especially Protestant churches, are addicted to cheap grace.

Today, the church faces a crisis of discipleship that would have been almost unimaginable in Bonhoeffer’s day. The radical individualism of Western Culture has resulted societies in which everyone and anyone decides for him or herself what they will believe and not believe and how they will and will not act. [4] In such a culture, it is not surprising that many people deny by word or deed those parts of the Gospel which they find difficult to obey or hard to understand. The tremendous growth of media ministries has not helped the problem. When there is a lot of money to be made watering down the Gospel, it is not surprising that some people do. Further, it is in the nature of discipleship that it cannot be accomplished sitting on a couch listening to a televangelist. One must get up and follow Jesus. Grace requires a change of life and action in response to its power. It requires participation in a community of faith within which a person can learn and see modeled the Christian life.

The Command To Make Disciples

Jesus gave the Church a commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added). Making disciples is God’s supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a life pleasing to God. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and listens. It is for every Christian to be and do.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers, and from fellow Christians. However, Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. We believe that Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and a relationship with that Person in which we become transformed to be more like that person who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Because being a disciple involves being in a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, they are a fan or admirer.

Christians do our best and live wisely and well when we simply emulate Jesus Christ. It is not enough for us to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to become more like Christ daily and help others become more like Christ. In particular, we must be willing and able to help people live with the same integrity and love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means that we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. This is the result of Costly Grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by and abstract understanding of knowledge. In such a world knowledge can be measured by tests and by one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information in various ways. Wisdom is different. To be wise is to know some information. However, more importantly, it is to apply such information and embody such information in a human life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, an embodied knowledge. The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling. Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [5] Christ chose twelve ordinary men and lived in relationship with them for his entire ministry. We believe that he also lived in close community with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings. Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus and their time together that propelled them to carry the Good News on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth, as they understood it.

Jesus promised us that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If we are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce us to him. If we are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, we must be mentored by people who are further along the path of discipleship that we are. If we are to learn of Jesus, we must spend time with his people as a part of his community. We must see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the lives of others. This means that we need to be a part of a fellowship that is trying to spend time with God in Christ. One way we do this is when we become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship and without accountability for their life of discipleship, inevitably fall short or fail.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is largely the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, doing what Jesus had done and facing the same opposition Jesus faced. This is important to us. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in our communities and around the world is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, growing in discipleship together, calling people into authentic community, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people.

To be continued!

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Id, at 45.

[3] Id, at 47.

[4] See, Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979).

[5] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans, 1989), 95, 227.

Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship

My wife and I have had a life-long and ministry-long interest in evangelism and discipleship. Recently we published a study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [1] The study is an attempt to provide interested Christians with some of the reasons why America desperately needs ordinary Christians to join a Disciple Making Movement (DMM) and share the Good News as well as one training method to accomplish this goal.. The Great Commission was not given to just twelve first century men, or just to professional clergy, or just to exceptionally gifted laypersons. All  Christians are commanded by Scripture to share the Good News of Christ with others and make disciples of those who respond.

Salt & Light is but one of many ways to share the Good News. The book I am now writing shares the theory behind any Disciple Making Movement, and Salt & Light in particular. It is hoped that interested people can more effectively lead disciple making small groups, including Salt & Light Groups.

Early in the book, the reason for its title becomes obvious: In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of Cheap Grace. [2] Today, we face a Crisis of Discipleship. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger or losing another.” One of my mentors in ministry, co-pastor  and friend, Dave Schieber, used to say, “the Church is always only one generation from extinction.” The church in America and in the West generally is in bad shape. This problem can only be addressed as individual fellowships of Christians become committed to following Christ and sharing his love with a broken world.

For the next twenty weeks or so, chapter by chapter, I intend to share Crisis of Discipleship on this blog. Please read and respond. I intend to be more conversational in responding to comments—and I intend to incorporate comments and corrections into the final draft.

Join with me in a conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture.

Chris

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). The book can now be advanced ordered. It will be released in May.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

Entering the New Heaven and New Earth

In Numbers, there is a strange story from the life of Moses. As the people of God were suffering without water in the wilderness, the Lord told Moses to gather Israel together and speak to a rock so that it would pour out water (20:8). In response, Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, gathered Israel together, spoke, struck the rock twice with his staff, and water gushed out (20:9-11) Unfortunately, Moses did not do exactly what God commanded and failed to give proper credit to God, so the LORD would not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land (20:12).

This is a story that ought to have meaning to all Christians—and it should also hold some hope for all of us as well. All human beings make errors and do not fully follow God’s will. It is only fitting, then, that we should not enter the Promised Land, so to speak, in this life. Nevertheless, before Moses died, God took him up to a high place and showed him the Promised Land (Deut. 34:1; Num. 27:12-13). I am sure that Moses thought it was enough to just see the Promised Land before he died. There is a Promised Land for every church and every group of Christians. No one Christian or pastor enters the fullness of that  Promised Land. We only experience some of it and glimpse the remainder from afar.  It is enough, however, for each of us to see a bit of it and enter a bit of it with a congregation.

Kathy and I are happy to have had almost eighteen great years with Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tennessee. Advent has been our Promised Land in ministry. We have seen a good bit of the Promised Land of our congregation, but now another Promised Land beckons for us and for our congregation. We are leaving to begin a new life and ministry, but the Promised Land for Advent lies ahead. We cannot enter it. We can only glimpse it from afar. Yet, I believe that Advent’s best years are yet to come. This is not just true of Advent, but of every congregation and every group of Christians: None of us are worthy of seeing the Promised Land in full, but God by his mercy and grace gives us glimpses of a reality that awaits the final consummation of all things.

The Vision of St. John.

In this blog, we are looking at the final chapters of Revelation. We began this year with a new theme, “A New Creation.” [1] In Isaiah, God promises that he will create a New Heaven and a New Earth (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). At the end of Revelation, John has a vision of the New Heaven and New Earth Isaiah foretold coming down from Heaven (21:1). Paul tells us that Christians are new Creations in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). We are not alone. God intends for the universe, Heaven and Earth, to be recreated. In part, this New Heaven and New Earth is created by God as the Bride of Christ, the Church, descends from Heaven to make all things new. let’s read a bit of this promise:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5).

Finally, let us read a bit from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (22:1-2).

Eternal, All-Wise and All-Loving God: We come to you asking that you come today to confirm our past and open to us our future as we anticipate the coming of your Kingdom into our lives, our church, our community and our nation. Amen.

The Vision of a New Creation.

As John ends Revelation, he communicates to his readers a final series of visions in which we receive a glimpse of the final consummation of the victory of Christ over sin, Satan, evil, and death. In the first vision, John sees the Holy City of Jerusalem descending from heaven like a bride dressed for her husband. In the second vision, John sees a vision of a River of Life flowing from the Temple of God into the world in which grows a restored Tree of Life. This River energizes the Tree of Life,  creating new life,  bearing fruit, and healing the brokenness of the world. [2]

To understand these visions and their implications, we need to remember the condition of the church in the time Revelation was written and why John wrote the book in the first place. The church of Revelation was a church under siege. The secular leaders of the day were persecuting the Church. The government of Rome wanted to be supreme, the lord over every aspect of people’s lives. To do this, Rome desired to eliminate all voices that would not recognize the supremacy of its power and the divinity of its emperor. Christians worshiped Christ as Lord of the Church, which was the earthly presence Kingdom of God, superior to all earthly kings and kingdoms. Christians would not worship Caesar because it would have caused them to worship a creature and not the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.

When times are tough, there is always a temptation to compromise. If hard times go on long enough, there is always a temptation to desert the true faith. By the time of Revelation, there was only one of the original Twelve left—John. In this book, John wanted to encourage the disciples of Asia Minor and assure them that God was in control and that God would be victorious in the end. As Billy Graham memorably puts it, “I have read the end of the story and God wins!”

The book of Revelation ends with the assurance that God will be victorious over all the powers and principalities that seek to destroy the testimony of Christ and the Church. John wants the churches of Asia Minor, and us, to know that God intends to defeat the powers of evil and build his Kingdom in the world. Surprisingly, it turns out, God intends to so this by the power of the Holy Spirit through us—the members of the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Church!

In the first vision, John sees a Heavenly City descending from heaven. This city is described in two ways: First, it is described as a beautiful, completely symmetrical, jewel encrusted city with streets of gold (21:10-21). Second, in the first vision John describes the Heavenly City as a lovely bride (21:2, 9).

We often think of the Heavenly City as a symbol for Heaven or a restored city at the end of time. The metaphor of a bride should bcorrect our thinking. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and this means that the Heavenly City is best understood as the Church coming down from heaven. [3] This has practical implications for us. Each of us is a citizen of the Heavenly City and a part of the Bride of Christ. This is not just for pastors or religious professionals. We are all a part of the Bride of Christ. The New Heaven and New Earth is coming down in and through us!

Not so long ago, I had a chance to do my last little bit of premarital counseling. Let me tell you that the bride was excited about the wedding to come! She was excited about the details and excited about her groom. Her life was about to change in unknown and unknowable ways, but that did not limit her excitement. She was looking forward to the future, and so should we who are the Bride of Christ. We don’t know what is next for Advent, for our family, or for the Body of Christ in the world, but we do know it will be good in the end!!

The Means of the New Creation: The Holy Spirit of God.

In the second vision, John gives us another glimpse of the Heavenly City. When Revelation 22 opens, John has already disclosed to us that there is no Sun, Moon, or Temple in the Heavenly City. God is present in the Heavenly City, and His Divine Light renders all other lights unnecessary.In other words, the Heavenly City is where God dwells in the midst of the hearts of his people, another indication that the Church is the Heavenly City.

Down the center of the Great Street of the Heavenly City, there flows a great River of Life, and beside that river stands the Tree of Life bearing twelve crops of fruit every month, twelve times a year. [4] In the ancient world, it was common to have a “Great Street” in the center of major cities. [5] This great street was often the center of life and commerce. [6] There was such a street in Jerusalem. Today it has been restored as a shopping area.

In Revelation, the Heavenly City has a Great Street. The Great Street of the Heavenly City is however, unique. The Great Street of the Heavenly City has a Great River flowing from the Throne of God into the city. [7] The Great River is the Holy Spirit flowing from the throne of God.

This River irrigates the land along its banks so that the Tree of Life grows along both sides of its banks. This tree of life bears twelve crops twelve times each year.

This image can be confusing. We think of trees growing on both sides of the banks of a river. This Tree of Life is one tree growing on both sides of the city. How can this be? Our Presbytery sponsors what is known as the “Aspen Church Planting Network.” When Eugene Scott, its leader, explained to our Session the image of the Aspen tree, he reminded us that Aspen trees grow by the extension of roots systems from one part of the tree to another sprouting of new life. An entire Aspen Grove is one living organism.  [8]

As we have mentioned before in our study of Revelation, the number twelve is extremely important. It normally refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles. It is often used as a symbol for the people of God. The symbol even appears as a doubling of the number, for the continuity of Old Testament Israel with the Church of the New Testament

The Heavenly City in John’s vision has twelve gates and twelve foundations (21:12, 14). The Twelve Foundations are explicitly identified as the Twelve Apostles. This is another indication that the Church is the Heavenly City, for it is built upon the testimony of the Twelve Apostles. [9] The Twelve Crops each of Twelve Months is the fruit of the Testimony of the Apostles, i.e. the church through the ages is one Church that must be faithful the testimony of the Apostles to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ, who is the Groom of the Bride of Christ.

Like an Aspen Grove, the Church of Christ is one living organism nurtured and fed by the Holy Spirit which flows through the life of the People of God. This tells us how important prayer is to our Christian life, to our church, and to the Church of Christ throughout the world. Prayer is the means through which the Word of God in Christ and in Scripture becomes real to us and energizes us to live the Christian life. We cannot live—the Church of Christ cannot live—without the River of Life that the Spirit is for us.

Our Role in the New Creation.

Finally, in John’s vision the Tree of Life produces fruit, twelve crops each month, and the leaves of the Tree of Life are for the healing of the nations (222-3). You may remember that, in Genesis, humankind was cast out of the Garden of Eden and a flaming sword barred their way back into the Garden for fear that, having misused the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity would misuse the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:23-24). Sin as one of its consequences doomed humanity to physical and spiritual death, cut off from God and from its intended fellowship with God. Now, in the restored City of God, the Tree of Life is back. Humanity is restored to its intended eternal fellowship with God. Because of what Christ did on the cross, we have a way back into fellowship with God, with others, and with creation.

In Revelation, the Tree of Life is bearing fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. If the Heavenly City is the Church built upon the foundations of the testimony of the Apostles, if the River is the Holy Spirit, what is the fruit? The fruit is the fruit of the Gospel—people converted lives changed, sins forgiven, and characters healed. We are the fruit of the Tree of Life and those we bring to Christ are also fruit of the Tree of Life.

We Christians are often not grateful enough for what God has done for us in Christ and through the intercession of other Christians. We receive the love of God through Jesus Christ, but we often do not share that love and allow that love to heal us, our relationships, and our society.

This is where I would like to leave us today: It has been a privilege to be a Presbyterian minister for the past almost quarter of a century. It has been a privilege to serve the Bride of Christ, to counsel, teach, and share the Gospel with people. This past two years, Kathy and I have deliberately tried to create a way to disciple others so that there will be more fruit of the Tree of Life at Advent, in Cordova, in Arlington, and in our city and area, even to the ends of the earth as our lives and the lives of other people touch other lives for Christ.

The future we are all walking into will not be like the past. There will be new leadership, new ideas, new programs, new ministries and missions. This is as it should be. Nevertheless, some things will not change. Christians still be fruit of the Tree of Life, a restored part of God’s creation. We will still be leaves on God’s tree, part of the City of God, which he has placed here to heal a broken world. We will still be subject to the Great Commission Christ gave his Church before he ascended to Heaven, from which he will come again—indeed I believe he is coming in the person of his Church when it loves a fallen and needy world.

Amen

Next week, I intend to begin a new series in this blog. I am writing a book on discipleship that is a companion to Salt & Light, the discipling curriculum that Kathy and I have written and which is soon to be published by Innovo Press.  I hope to share a draft, chapter by chapter, for the next twenty weeks or so. Please comment upon these new posts, as they involve the next project we hope to complete as Kathy and I enter a new phase of life!!!

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Becoming a Radical New Me! (preached January 8, 2017 at Advent Presbyterian Church, Cordova, TN).

[2] As is often the case, I cannot possibly cite in this brief blog all the sources to which I owe a debt of gratitude. I am especially grateful to have read from Eugene Peterson, Reverse Thunder (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1988), Robert Mounce, “The Book of Revelation” in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), Leon Morris, “Revelation” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983, and William Barclay, “The Revelation of John: Part 2” in the Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1976).

[3] The Old and New Testaments are filled with allusions to the people of God as a bride. See, Hosea 2:19; Isaiah 54:3; Jereemiah31, 14, 32. In the New Testament the same simile is used for the people of God (Matthew9:15, 25:1-13; John 3:29; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:21-33; Rev. 19:7, 21:2; 22:17). The symbol of the Heavenly City/Bride should be a symbol of the people of God in an intimate relationship with their Groom/God.

[4] This is another image pregnant with references to the Biblical witness to God and to Christ. Jesus told the woman at the well that there would come a time when people would not need to go to Jerusalem to worship for people would worship God “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:21-24). There is no need for a Temple in the Heavenly City because God is now being worshiped in Spirit and in Truth. The Water of the River of Life flowing through the Heavenly City is the Holy Spirit of God, God’s own presence with and in the people of God.

[5] Roman planning fully integrated urban defenses with the city plan and the street system. The walls and the streets were laid out concurrently as part of the coordinated planning of the city. The main streets led directly from the center of town to the gates, and the ‘pomerial’ road ran around the city immediately inside the walls. http://historylink101.com/lessons/farm-city/roman-city.htm (downloaded March 15, 2017).

[6] The last time I was in Israel, we visited a now underground shopping area that once was a Great Street, the center of Jerusalem during a portion of the Roman occupation. After the Jewish quarter was destroyed in the war, archaeologists excavated a huge area and found the Roman cardo – or colonnaded Main Street. They have left some as an excavation with shops up above, some had been reconstructed and some is a plaza open to the sky. Interestingly, today this street is still a center of the tourist trade and very active. Even today, we speak of “Main Street USA,” a metaphor for the businesses that line the main streets of towns and cities all over our nation.

[7] This river is like a river visualized by the Prophet Ezekiel, a river flowing from the Temple of God into the Israel (Ezekiel 47:1-12). Like the heavenly city, this river through the restored Jerusalem into the world and crops grow beside the river for the healing of the nations.

[8] [8] See, Meghan Bartels, “This Looks Like a Forest, But It’s Actually Just One Tree—and It’s One of the oldest and Largest Organisms on Earth” Business Insider (July 8, 2016, downloaded March 16, 2017), at www.businessinsider.com.

[9] This is one reason that Orthodox, Roman, and other Episcopal church groups choose leadership by apostolic succession through ordination by Bishops. Apostolic succession from the twelve original apostles to the church today is guaranteed by the laying on of hands in succession from the original Twelve. Prayer is the means through which the Word of the Gospel in Christ and Scripture becomes real to us and energizes us to live the Christian life. This is a major point Calvin makes in his Institutes: The word of God becomes real to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. See, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 1 ed. John T. McNeil, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press), 1.7.4.

Nicodemus: Entering the Lamb Light

I decided to take a break this week. I am getting ready to retire, and so I  invited a guest blogger. It took some doing, but I was able to get Nicodemus to give his testimony!

My name is Nicodemus. I have been asked to come and visit with you today so that you can hear firsthand my personal experience of Jesus. By your standards, I am not an old man. But,  by the standards of my day, when life spans were shorter, I was an “elder,” a respected leader of my people, a man in my prime when I met Jesus.

In Scripture, I am described as a “Pharisee and a Ruler of the Jews” (v. 1). In my day, there were two major parties in my country: the “Sadducees,” who tended to be from wealthy families allied with the priestly class, and the “Pharisees,” of which I am a member. We Pharisees were very scrupulous in matters of faith and morals. I studied the holy books of my faith and the writings of the Rabbi’s until I became a skilled interpreter of the law of Moses. Furthermore, I did not just study the laws of my people, I was diligent in applying them to my life.

Your Webster’s Dictionary defines the term Pharisee as “someone who is extremely self-righteous.” There is some truth to that charge, but it is basically unfair. We Pharisees, like you Presbyterians, were a people who understood that God is holy and just, and we tried to live as the Holy God of Israel commands in the Laws and in the Prophets.

As to what we believed, we were a lot like you Presbyterians. We believed in one God who is the creator of the heavens and the earth and the deliverer of his people. We believed that God is all powerful and in control of the destiny of men and nations. We believed in angels and in demons. We believed that human beings have immortal souls and will be resurrected from the dead at the last day.

Like you Presbyterians, we were known to be hard-working, successful, and generally honest people. Unfortunately, that also meant that we often put too much faith in ourselves and in our own righteousness and not enough faith in God.

I am also described in your Bible as a “Ruler of the Jews,” meaning that I was a member of the ruling council, the “Sanhedrin”. The Sanhedrin was made up of seventy-one of the most important leaders of our people. It was as a member of this elite group of people that I first became aware of my great need for God.

Good News for the World Weary.

  1. The Dead End of Self Sufficiency. To tell you the truth, my success was my undoing. I managed to work my way to the top. becoming a leader of my profession as well as of my country. Along the way, I made a lot of compromises. Being a lawyer, I have an ability to parse the law carefully, and in my personal life I was able to do the same. My friends used to speak of me as a “righteous man;” but, after a time, I found it difficult to think of myself in that way. If others saw how good I was in comparison to them, I saw how bad I was in comparison to God. Worse, I knew how little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and self-control I enjoyed when no one was looking.

By the time I heard about Jesus Bar Joseph, a reputed worker of miracles and teacher, my life was no more than going through the motions. When I heard of his mighty deeds of power and about his teachings that the kingdom of God was near at hand, I determined to meet him to see if he was a fraud or a true religious leader. But, being a careful man, I determined to go at night when I would not be seen. I did not want to undermine my position in the council, and I did not want my presence to give this Jesus any more popularity with the people than necessary for fear that he would create an uprising.

Some of you may be in the same situation that I was in when I met Jesus. You aren’t a particularly bad person. You try to do your best to act in a moral way. But, two things disturb you: (i) you aren’t as good as you pretend to be and (ii) your religion has become dry legalism, and you know it. If so, you are like me. So far as my spiritual life was concerned, I had reached a dead end.

  1. The Necessity of New Birth. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible with Jesus when we met. I acknowledged that he was a good man and that he had proven his status as an anointed teacher by his wise teachings. I felt that a compliment would set his mind at ease that I was not an enemy or hostile as so many of the religious leaders of our people tended to be

I expected him to return the compliment, or at least be flattered by my attention. Instead, he did the most extraordinary thing. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I tell you the truth: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (v. 4). Well, I was completely taken aback. Here I was, a Jew among Jews, and this country preacher was telling me something that I could not understand.

Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to deflect his point, but I responded in what I can see was a foolish way by saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb a second time?”  Of course, I did not mean this literally. What I meant to say was that I could not understand how a person of my age and accomplishments could possibly begin all over again. I did not think I needed to “start over.” I thought I just needed to do better.  I was after new ideas about how to become more righteous. The idea of needing to be born again never crossed my mind.

Jesus looked me straight in the eye and replied, “I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v. 5-6). Jesus was telling me that my works and the self-righteousness that came from my works was not saving me. It was keeping me from God. What I needed was for God to give me a new life by the Holy Spirit.

At the time, I could hardly understand what Jesus was saying. Now, I realize that Jesus was telling me that human beings are more than blood and sinew, physical beings. We are physical beings, but we have the capacity to be more than merely physical beings. We have the capacity to have a spiritual life as we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.

In my case, I knew the law, and I had the natural ability to obey a great deal of it, but I lacked the spiritual life that God and God alone can give. I knew about God, but I did not know God personally. Jesus was offering me a tremendous gift – the gift of the Spirit and the New Life the Spirit of God brings.

Let me give you an example from the life of my colleague in the Sanhedrin, Saul of Tarsus. I knew Saul, or St. Paul as you call him, before he became a follower of the Way. He was a brilliant scholar and Pharisee. Yet, even then I could see that he was a deeply unhappy person. He tried hard to obey the law. In fact, he was a fanatic. He hated the Christians, followers of Jesus and the Way of Grace. One day, he came to the Sanhedrin and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that he might go and persecute the church there. You could see that there was a deep struggle going on in the soul of Saul. That is why he was so opposed to Christianity: He sensed that the followers of the Way knew God in a way he knew was impossible by merely following the law.

As Paul later described it, God came to him on the road and revealed  that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God and that, by Grace through faith, he could have a new life. The inner conflict he felt, and his sense that he could not know God by the means he was using, was resolved when God took the initiative and revealed himself to Saul. [1]

That is the idea of the experience of being born again. The New Life we receive in Christ is not something we do, just as our human birth is not something that we do. It is something that God bestows upon us, it is a new birth given to us as we open ourselves to God. The Holy Spirit is like the wind: it cannot be controlled by human power, although it has a powerful impact on human life (John 3:5-6). At the end of this service we always give people an opportunity to receive the New Life Christ can bring.

  1. The Grace of God in Christ. Jesus went on a little later in our conversation to explain what this grace of God was all about. He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). You are Christians, and many of you grew up in Christian homes. This verse is very familiar to you, and perhaps that is not all together a good thing. To me, this verse represents the most inconceivable thing about Jesus.

First, I am a Jew, and I can tell you that what Jesus said was revolutionary! As a Pharisee, my primary idea of who God is had to do with the law. To me, God was primarily the God of justice who judges sin and who gave his Torah, his divine commands, with the expectation that his instructions would be followed or there would be consequences. Perhaps some of you feel this way. God is primarily the Great Rule Maker and the idea that God is primarily a lover who loves the world with a disinterested love is totally revolutionary.

My God was a god of judgment. Deep in the way my people thought of God was the idea of God as a judge. Later in in our conversation, Jesus described his idea of judgment. He said that the judgment is that God sent his Son, the Messiah, to save the world, and that the way that people are judged was by whether they accept or reject God’s loving gift of the forgiveness of sins by faith (v. 18). Instead of righteous works being the way a person comes into fellowship with God, good works are the result of what God does in the life of a believer. What a mystery!!

Second, the idea that God was the giver of a sacrifice for my sins was revolutionary. I lived in Jerusalem, and daily I went by the temple where the people brought their sacrifices for sin. In my religion, God did not do the sacrificing. We did. If I sinned, I gave a sacrifice. The idea that God, motivated by love, determined to undo the effects of my sin was beyond anything I had ever dreamed.

My idea of the Messiah was that he would be a political leader who would retain the law and the sacrificial code of Israel. Jesus had a completely different idea. Jesus’ idea was that as the Messiah he would love Israel and give himself for Israel. Jesus was the Lamb of God by which God demonstrates his unfailing love for his people by rescuing them from their sins.

I was weary because I had taken on my back the responsibility for my own salvation and for the works of righteousness that I knew that God wanted of me. Jesus’ idea was that God did the work. I could see that, if this was true, the solution to my spiritual weariness was at hand. I did not have to do anything more! God would do it for me! I could relax and let God do the work of giving me his Divine Life.

Conclusion.

I am sure that you are asking, “What happened to Nicodemus?” When Jesus was condemned, John records that I protested the unfair treatment of the Galilean early in his ministry (John 7:50-52). When Jesus was killed, I took spices for his anointing (John 19:40). Unfortunately, I never publicly declared my faith in such a way that the writers of your Gospel recorded my faith. As I said, I am a careful man, perhaps too careful.

The Gospel of John does not say whether I became a follower of the Way of Jesus, and I am not going to tell you today. [2] It is better the way that John leaves the story. For, during my life, I had to struggle with faith and with whether Jesus was the messiah, and so will you. I had to make my decision concerning whether to accept Christ and become his disciple, and you must make yours.

Each of you must ask yourselves the very same thing I had to ask myself: Am I willing to become like a child again and in humility and repentance ask God to do for me what I cannot do for myself? What you call, “Good News” is good news precisely because God has done something for us we could never do for ourselves. God has given each of us a way to have a new life and a new kind of life. The only question is, “Will we accept it?”

Amen.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The ideas behind this interpretation of what happened to Paul come from James Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 21ff. This is one of my favorite books and well worth reading. It has shaped my ministry since I first read it during seminary.

[2] “Nicodemus” in New Bible Dictionary Second Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1962, 1993), 834, There are many legends regarding what happened to Nicodemus. Personally, I think he did become a follower of Jesus. His participation in the anointing of Jesus is strong evidence. Nevertheless, the historical record is unclear.

Living in Lamb Light

Last week, I mentioned that I grew up at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri.  I mentioned how much Westminster meant to my spiritual growth. What happened after I left Westminster was not the fault of Westminster. When I left home for college I drifted away from the Christian faith. I majored in philosophy in college, and in the process drifted intellectually, morally, and spiritually away from my parent’s Christian faith.

During college, a girlfriend gave me a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. [1] It sat unread on my bookshelf for a few years. One day, during a time of personal suffering, the book fell off my bookshelf at my feet. (This is one of two times that God has acted in my life by having a book fall at my feet!) I picked up the book and began to read. Over the course of the next few days, because of Lewis’ logic, I came to see that Christianity makes sense. A bit more than two yeara later, on a Sunday morning, while reflecting on the sermon and a worship service, Christ came into my life.

Our theme in this blog is the surprising revelation of the love of God that the wisdom of God  became manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is a personal God of Wisdom and Love.

The Lamb Light Has Come.

John is much different than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke began with the birth of Jesus. Mark begins with the ministry of Jesus. In all three of what are called the “Synoptic Gospels,” the writer gradually reveals who Jesus is—the Son of God. Especially in Mark, the disciples never figure out what’s going on until after the resurrection. John begins his gospel by telling us exactly who Jesus is: Jesus is the Word of God, God, in human form.

Matthew is a Jewish gospel. Mark is a fisherman’s gospel. Luke is a gospel for the Gentiles. John is a philosophical gospel designed to show Greek thinking people that Jesus is the word (or reason) of God made flesh. John, as he does in Revelation, often speaks in metaphors and images, he reveals details other Gospels leave out, and he structures his gospel in a unique way.

Our text comes from the first chapter of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (vv. 9-13).

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (v. 29).

Prayer: Light of the World: Come to us with your uncreated wisdom and love to transform our hearts and minds into the image of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

The Creative Light of the World.

Scholars love to remind us that people in the ancient world did not think in the same way we do. This is true. However, there are some aspects of human nature that never seem to change. For example, as far back in history as we know, people have gazed at the sky and wondered. When I was young little boys and girls like to lie in the backyard and stare at the sky and look at the stars. When our children were young they liked to look at the stars. When I was a little boy one of my favorite gifts was a telescope with which I could look at the moon and the stars. When my son was a little boy one of his favorite gifts was a telescope with which he could look at the stars and the man. (In fact, Kathy and I still have that telescope.)

I am not mathematical. However, from the beginning of human history, men and women have looked at the sky and noticed that there are regularities in God’s creation. Most of us know the term, “Pythagoras’s Theorem:” “The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the other two sides.” [2] Pythagoras even developed a theory of the universe based upon his theorem. His theories evolved into a philosophical school and a religious community. Deep, deep in the Greek mindset is the idea that the universe is rational.

When the Jews describe the creation of the universe, they also intuited that the universe was deeply rational. Listen to the beginning of Genesis:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3).

The Jews believed that a Personal God, who is wise and rational and knows all things, created the world by through His Word. The world was “Spoken into Being,” so to speak.  Of course, only people speak and so the Jewish Creator God is in some way personal.

The Greek word for “Word” is “Logos.” When the Greek followers of Plato described how it was that the world was created they used the word “Logos” to describe the rationality of God. John hit upon this word, Logos, to describe the Word of God through whom the world was made and which became manifest in Jesus. The difference is that for John, this Logos of God is personal, characterized by love, and became personally present in Jesus Christ. We serve a personal God who personally loves us.

The Embodied Light of the World.

At this point, we come face-to-face with another interesting fact about religious history: Throughout history, human beings have been fascinated by light. The ancient people were fascinated by light and often thought of light as a gift of the gods. The Greeks often used light as a symbol for rationality because light illuminates and reveals, just as our human reason illuminates and reveals the world. During the Renaissance, painters were fascinated highlight. It was during the Renaissance that painters first began to experiment with painting light and shadows and variants of color based upon light.

At the end of the Renaissance, there was a period called “the Enlightenment” as the modern world and modern science developed. Interestingly, it is light, and the characteristics of light, that helped bring about our postmodern world. Einstein was fascinated by light. His Relativity Theory assumes that light is the only invariant part of our universe, the only constant. It was when we discovered that light has the characteristics of both particles and waves that post-modern quantum physics developed. [3] It is the nature of light that caused physicists to enter what we call the postmodern world.

Light fascinated the ancients and it fascinates us as well.
As John and the other apostles pondered the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, they concluded that, in Jesus, the Word of God that created the world, the Rationality of God that characterizes the world, the Light of the world that makes life possible, all this was revealed  in one human life. Jesus was a Personal Word of a Personal  God. This Personal Word created the world, created humanity and gives us true life by the light of his presence.  [4]

You may ask, “How does all this changed my life?” The simple answer is this: if Jesus is the Logos of God, the reason of God, the light of God, the rationality of God, then we will be acting in the most rational way if we only behave like Jesus. Let me say this again because it’s so important: if we behave like Jesus we will be acting in the most rational way possible. This means that it is worth our time to learn about Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to begin to think and act like Jesus.

Living Centered in the Light/Love of God.

How are we to live centered in the Light and Love of God? How are we to embody the wisdom and love of Jesus? It is not enough just to read the Bible. For a lot of years now, His Handmaids, our dance group have periodically danced to an Amy Grant song called, “Fat Baby.” In part, it goes like this:

I know a man, maybe you know him, too.
You never can tell; he might even be you.
He knelt at the altar, and that was the end.
He’s saved, and that’s all that matters to him.

His spiritual tummy, it can’t take too much.
One day a week, he gets a spiritual lunch.
On Sunday, he puts on his spiritual best,
And gives his language a spiritual rest.

He’s just a faaa…
He’s just a fat little baby!
Wa, wa, waaaaa….
He wants his bottle, and he don’t mean maybe.
He sampled solid foods once or twice,
But he says doctrine leaves him cold as ice.
Ba, ba, ba, ba…ba, ba…ba, ba!

He’s been baptized, sanctified, redeemed by the blood,
But his daily devotions are stuck in the mud.
He knows the books of the Bible and John 3:16.
He’s got the biggest King James you’ve ever seen! [5]

This song beautifully illustrates an important fact about the Christian life: We don’t become more Christ-like just because we have a big Bible and go to church all the time! It’s not enough to read the Bible once in a while. We must truly meditate on the word of God. I find this very hard. It’s hard to take time before work to meditate. It’s hard to take time during the day to meditate. It’s hard to take time at night before bed time to meditate. It’s just hard to find time to allow God’s word to sink into your life. But we need to try. A Personal God wants us to have a Personal Relationship with His Word.

Second, it’s not enough just to read the word of God. We need to pray. By now, almost everyone at Advent knows that one of my favorite parts of Greek is what is known as the “Spherical Dative.” When Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ is they are a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), the phrase “in Christ” is a spherical dative. It is as if Paul were saying to us that we need to be surrounded by the word of God. We need to be so surrounded by the Word of God that we spiritually live inside of Christ and the power of God revealed by Christ. This means, among other things, that we need to be surrounded by other Christians were trying to live the Christian life. I need to live my life day by day as part of a Christian community. But most importantly I need to pray and meditate and allow God to surround my life. A Personal God wants to personally communicate with His people. Jesus Christ is the symbol and source revealing God’s personal communication to us in the most intimate way: by becoming one of us.

Finally, “Fat Baby” reminds us that it is not enough to read the Bible and pray. We need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Jesus is not interested in creating biblical scholars. He is not interested in creating people who pray but have nothing to do with the salvation of the world. God loved the world so much that he sent his son to save the world and he wants Christians to be a part of that salvation. Our Personal God personally present in Jesus wants us to join Him in personally sharing the Gospel with others.

The Sacrificial Light of God.

This is where we come to the greatest mystery of all. Early on John alerts us to the fact that the word of God, the light of God, the very life of God, was also absolute, unconditional, steadfast, self-giving love.
The Personal Love of our Personal God doesn’t just love the world enough to give us a few good ideas. He loves the world enough to come and be one of us and give himself for our sins. The light of the world is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. [6] The love of God is not just any old kind of love. It is the greatest most wonderful love we could possibly imagine. It is a love that will not let us go, that loves us despite all our sin, our brokenness, and our betrayals. It is the Steadfast love of the LORD. It is the self-giving love of the great artist who created the universe.  It is the Sacrificial Love of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World.

Amen.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1952). There are many versions available.

[2] The Pythagorean Theorem bears the name of the Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras. It is a statement about triangles containing a right angle. The Pythagorean Theorem technically states that: “The area of the square built upon the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares upon the remaining sides”. Stephanie J. Morris, “The Pythagorean Theorem www.jwilson.coe.uga.edu/emt669/Student.Folders/Morris.Stephanie/EMT.669/Essay.1/Pythagorean.html (downloaded March 2, 2017).

[3] It is my view that Newtonian physics is inherently modern, since it posits a disinterested observer, while quantum physics is inherently postmodern because it denies that aspect of modern physics.

[4] The Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer refers to the Christian God as the “Infinite Personal God,” which lets us know that the person of God is not like a human person, but an infinite personal being. See, Francis Schaeffer, He is There and He Is Not Silent (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972).

[5] Amy Grant, “Fat Baby” written by Keith Tomas and Amy Grant (released, January 18, 1991).

[6] I want to note that the research and conclusions I reached in researching and writing, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed (Cordova, TN: Booksurge, 2016) form the basis of the last two sections of this essay.