Preparing for the Party

Our Lenten Series at Bay Presbyterian Church is entitled, “Preparation.” Over the next six weeks, the congregation will be looking at the Gospel of Mark and learning about our Christian discipleship from Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ ministry. Libbie Peterson and others have prepared a special congregational small group study to go with the series. (Actually, the series has been designed around the study!)

As I was preparing, I looked on the Internet for images of the kingdom of God. I made the most remarkable discovery. Almost all of the descriptions were highly abstract, many of which involved a single individual looking at the Earth or an image of the kingdom. There’s something pretty obviously wrong with this! The very word, “kingdom” implies a king and subjects. A king that had only one citizen of his kingdom would not be much of a king! Nearly all of these graphics were from sermon series preached in evangelical churches like ours. This tells us something very important about a problem with evangelicalism in America today: We are excessively individualistic.

Too often, we portray Christian faith as “between Jesus and me.” While my Christian faith is between Jesus and me, there is much more involved. The Bible tells us that, when we come to Christ, we become part of his kingdom (Colossians 1:13), his family (Galatians 3:26), his household (Hebrews 3:6), his very body (I Corinthians 12:27). All these metaphors tell us that there is something deeply relational about the Christian faith. [1] Christian faith was never meant to be lived by disconnected solitary individuals, except under unusual circumstances. [2] That is why we are having the small group study in connection with our Easter series this year. Relationships matter. Community matters.

Preparation and Presence

Today, we are looking at John the Baptist’s preparation for the Messiah’s coming and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Our text is from Mark, Chapter 1:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord,make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:1-15).

Prayer: King of Heaven and of Heaven’s Kingdom: Please come among us that we may see more clearly than ever what it is you desire our world to be like and for us to be like. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Expectation

From the Babylonian Captivity until the coming of Christ, the Jewish people prayed for, hoped for, and worked for the reestablishment of the kingdom of David. [3] The prophets had visions of a time when God would restore the Kingdom of David, place one of his descendants upon his throne, and institute a time of peace, justice, and plenty. Over time, this notion of a New Kingdom of David came to contain a vision of a future Kingdom of God in which the evils of this world would not be present (Isaiah 40:10).

The Messiah was to be a king and his kingdom would be a restored Israel (See, 2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 60:1-22; Micah 7:11-20; Zephaniah 3:14-20). He would lead the people of God. He would possess wisdom and be a wonderful counselor (Isaiah 9:6). He would be the Son of God, filled with the power of Jehovah God. He would be a prince of peace, ushering in a world without war (Isaiah 96). He would be the true son of David. He would be just and righteous. [4] His kingdom would have no end (Isaiah 9:7).

The prophets predicted that the Messiah would be spirit-filled and have divine wisdom and understanding. He would respect and fear God. He would have a spirit of justice and see into the reality of things, not being misled by prejudice. He would care for the poor and needy as much as the rich and powerful. He would be faithful to God. He would conquer the world with his wisdom and teachings. He would institute a time of peace where the lions and the lambs will lay down together and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. He would not only gather the remnant of Israel, but would also assemble the ten lost tribes of Israel. His teachings and his justice would be so compelling that the entire Gentile world will rally to his side rest in his peace. [5]

Preparation

In the Old Testament, it had been foretold that, before the Messiah came, the prophet Elijah would return to proclaim his coming (Malachi 4:5). Sure enough, just before Jesus arrived on the scene a prophet like Elijah did appear on the scene: John the Baptist. He came announcing that the Messiah was about to come and Israel needed to get ready. He came urging people to repent, be baptized and become ready for the Messiah.

Whenever Kathy decides to have a party I know two things instantly: It is going to be expensive and it’s going to be a lot of work for her (and perhaps for me). It has been my experience that any party requires multiple trips to the store to get ready. There is food to be bought. There are flowers for the table. Sometimes there is wine to be purchased. There are seasonal decorations to be purchased. There is a lot to do before the party. While I am an expert at avoiding any work related to parties, inevitably there are things I must do.

This is an especially important thing for me and others to remember this Easter Season. Bay Presbyterian Church is getting ready for the future. We just finished a congregational analysis and a new Mission, Vision, and Values statement. We have been raising money to take care of some long deferred maintenance before a new pastor arrives. We’ve been working on deepening our sense of community. We’ve been healing old wounds and addressing old problems. Why? Because we are getting ready to throw a big party when this interim time is over! We have to get ready! We must be prepared when a new era begins.

The Kingdom Christ Brought

One day, more than 500 years after the prophets began to speak about the Messiah and his Kingdom, a young rabbi from Nazareth, came preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). His name was Jesus bar Joseph. When he came, he showed unusual devotion to God, unusual wisdom in his teachings and parables, and unusual power in the way he healed the sick, the lame, and the mentally ill. He also periodically made unusual claims. He proclaimed that the Day of the Lord the prophets had foretold was here. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand—and he was its king (Mark 1:18). He even claimed that, in some mysterious way, he was the Kingdom of God (Matthew 12:27). In other words, in him, the Kingdom of God was present. Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). [6]

He also made the astounding claim that the Kingdom of God could not only be in him and created by him, but it could be within each one of us. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he said (Luke 17:21). In other words, the wisdom, the love, the peace, the power, the eternal life, which is the essence of the Kingdom of God, can be felt in each of our lives if only we will respond to the gracious call of Jesus, which is the Good News of the Gospel. It can, in fact, be with us each and every day of our lives.

This kingdom Jesus brings is not like the kingdoms of this earth. It is not like the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the British Empire, even the Pax Americana the world has enjoyed since 1945. These kingdoms are doomed to rise and fall.

Jesus’ kingdom will not end with our death, for we will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). He also promises that he will come someday in an unimaginable way and finally defeat the foes of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Righteousness, and establish a perfect kingdom that will last forever—a kingdom in which there will be no more death, or disease, or war, or pain. [7]

A couple of times in our marriage, Kathy and I have gone to look at timeshare units. Often, the people who develop them offer free weekends, where you can come and live in a timeshare in, say, Destin, Florida for a few days, spend some time at the beach, and dream about what life would be like if you owned a timeshare. God is a bit like a Timeshare developer. We do not have to wait until heaven to have a kind of foretaste of the kingdom and experience for just a little while what God’s kingdom is like. Paul tells us that we Christians are already citizens of God’s kingdom, which is the Church of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:21). When we accept Christ as the king of our hearts, become a part of the Body of Christ, and begin to behave as if we were in heaven, we experience in some small way what heaven is like.

Becoming a Kingdom Citizen

There has been a lot of talk recently about citizenship. Historically, citizenship required that you either be born in our country or pass a test after a period of preparation to become a citizen. In other words, you don’t just automatically get to be a citizen of a kingdom unless you are born a citizen—and none of us is born a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

So, how can we become a part of that kingdom? In today’s text, Jesus tells us how we can do this. He says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). To be a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, we have to repent. We must turn around, look at ourselves, recognize how far we really are from God, and then turn from the kingdom of this world to his kingdom. We will never repent unless we believe, and so we must believe to enter the kingdom of God. In other words we must believe and put our trust in the gospel that Christ proclaimed: that God loves us, sent his son to die for us, wants us to be his children, part of his family, members of his kingdom (John 3:16). Once we have that kind of faith, we must listen to God in our hearts and his word, Holy Scripture—because God’s children listen and hear his voice (John 10:27). Finally, having become hearers of the word of God, we must also become doers of the word of God (Mark 3:35, James 1:22-27; Romans 2:13). If we repent, believe, listen, and obey, we will be a part of the body of Christ and experience with other believers a foretaste of what heaven will be like right here on this earth.

Preparing for Easter

Lent is a time of preparation. We are preparing to celebrate Good Friday when the Messiah died for our sins and for Easter Sunday when the Messiah rose from the dead, demonstrating God’s power over sin and death. When that day comes, we are going to have a celebration. In the meantime, we must remember that Jesus did not come because we did not need a savior. He came because we need a savior and need to be rescued from ourselves, our selfishness, and out sinfulness. This is what Lent is all about. We are preparing for a better day.

Amen

[1] See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1985) for a deep analysis of the importance of communion to the being of God and of the Church where he speaks of the church a the “community of the kingdom of God.” Id, at 232-233.

[2] The Westminster Confession makes it plain that, while it is possible to be saved outside of the church, the church is the ordinary vehicle by which God works salvation. Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25.2, Governing Documents of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Constitution Vol. 2 Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, Livonia, MI EPC 2013), Chapter 25.2 p. 44.

[3] Some of the Old Testament references include Isaiah 35:1-4, 8-10; 40:9-11; 52:7-10; Jeremiah 23:3-4; Daniel 2:44; 7:13-14; Zechariah 14:9; Psalm 89. See, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/kingdom-god-old-testament-prophetic-hope/ (Downloaded, February 17, 2018).

[4] Isaiah 9:6-7.

[5] Isaiah 11:1-12 describes all these qualiites.

[6] Jesus’ exact claim can be looked at in two different ways, both of which are a part of this sermon. The claim can be and seems to be that Kingdom of God is in him and can be within each of us. See, William Barclay, “The Gospel of Luke” in the Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 220.

[7] See Revelation 21:1-6.

Heart of Worship: Transformed in Managing Money

Kathy and I were in Houston last weekend to celebrate a Sunday School Class that spawned a series of smaller groups and to thank the woman who sponsored us when we were young, immature, Christians. We joined the Carpenters Class the Sunday after we returned from our honeymoon. It was in the Carpenters Class, which included and spawned many small groups, that we first learned about Christian marriage, Christian child-raising, and how to manage our money. Members of that class were a part of our first Crown Ministry study on Christians and their money. Members of that class helped us with our first attempt at budgeting, tithing, and planning for retirement. We have been with each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow, in success and in failure, in good times and bad, in hard times and in easy times.

This group and its members have enriched my life in many ways. We Americans like to think of ourselves as independent individuals. We are individuals, but the individuals we become is powerfully impacted for good or ill be people with whom we share out lives. In our case, in every area of life, we have been blessed with friends and small groups of friends that helped us be faithful spouses and faithful stewards of the gifts God has given to us.

Our Call to a Life of Stewardship

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a series of parables concerning the Kingdom of God and our responsibility as citizens of that Kingdom. [1]When confronted by the Gospel and the gracious invitation of God to receive his gracious offer to become citizens of the Kingdom of God, some people reject it. Some people don’t reject God’s offer, but they fail to become very good citizens of that Kingdom. They fail to be constantly filled with the Spirit, live a careful life of stewardship of their time, talent and energy, and don’t care much for those who are suffering. [2] Today, we are going to be visiting about the parable of the Talents. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Prayer: Eternal God, You are indeed the owner of everything and you have graciously bestowed upon us the privilege of being placed in Charge of your creation. Use this meditation to enable us to become better stewards of your riches. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Today, I want to give my readers there short principles that can help us in managing our money:

Principle One: We are Stewards not Owners!

When I began writing the little two week devotional that goes with the next two sermons we are having in Bay Village, Ohio, I was struck by the relevance of today’s text. All of us want to be “good and faithful servants” and none of us want to be a “lazy and wicked servant” of Jesus. If we do not, then we need to learn a few things. Although the text is about all of life stewardship, all of our time, talents, energy, and money, it not insignificant that Jesus told the parable about money. [3]

We human beings were created for stewardship (Gen.1:28-30; 2:13). From the beginning, God intended us to be careful, diligent, hard working stewards of Creation. Of course, because of the Fall, we are not able to fully become the good stewards God intended us to be. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, we can become much better stewards than we are today!

Many years ago now, Kathy and I went through what became the great oil and gas and real estate collapse in Texas. Up to that time, we had never really had to think seriously about how God would have our finances managed. Then, my income fell, we had three and then four small children, business was not good, and we were in debt. It was at that moment that we began to tithe and to study how we could better manage our finances. One of the members of that Sunday School Class and I were in a small group Bible study together, and he mentioned to me the Christian writer Ron Blue. I purchased Ron Blue’s book and began attempting to put our financial house in order. [4]

The first step I had to take was to recognize that my income, house, cars, bank accounts, possessions, etc. were gifts of God, no matter how hard I had worked to get them. This gets me to the first step we must all take in the life of stewardship: we have to recognize that everything we have, no matter how hard we work or how smart we are or how diligently we plan, everything is a gift of God. We don’t own our lives; we are given them. We are born by God’s grace, we live by God’s grace, we have the abilities and talents we have by God’s grace, and we get the breaks in life we get by God’s grace. Therefore, we are all called to manage those gifts out of the gratitude we feel to a loving God for all he has given to us, however much or little that is.

Principle 2: We Will Never Become Good Stewards unless we Take Stock.

Jesus was, among other things, the wisest teacher in the history of the world. Sometimes we forget that he was both the Wisdom and the Love of God in human form. One of my favorite of his parables goes like this:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:28-30).

In America, we rarely run out of money when we’re building a new house. We borrow the money from the bank. But in the ancient world, and in much of the world today, people have to build their houses as they earned the cash to do so. Those of us who have traveled in third world countries have seen many half-built houses. Jesus and his hearers would have been familiar with many such homes. In Jesus’s world, only a fool began to build a home that he was unable to complete.

In managing our financial affairs, many of us don’t take that first step of wisdom. We don’t figure out where we are, and we don’t plan and budget so that we can get where we want to go. This is the second point of the day:  If we want to become better stewards of our resources, the first thing we have to do is take stock of where we are and what we can afford!

If Kathy were here today, she would tell you that for a guy that has limited mathematical ability, I am capable of creating an enormous number of spreadsheets. Many years ago, before I knew how to use a computer, I purchased and accountant’s tablet and begin the painful process of creating a balance sheet and income and expense statement for our family. I even created a first basic future financial plan for retirement. Once we had a computer, I begin to use a computer program that no longer exists! Today most of the time I use Excel . I’ve learned it for free I can download almost any kind of template I need to plan retirement, create a budget, find out what our assets are, and solve any other financial problem I want to think about if I look hard enough. For those of you who don’t want to look, there are a lot of programs out there. [5]

I guarantee you that there is not a single person in this room with less native mathematical ability than I have!  If my High School Math teachers were here today, they would stand up with one voice and declare that I have no mathematical ability. However, after years of hard work, I taught myself what I need to know–and so can anyone else in this room.  Figuring out where we are and making a budget and plan does not take a lot of ability, it just takes a lot of hard work and concentration.

Principle 3: We Will Never Save or Give Unless we find Contentment.

Sometimes, people think that pastors are exempt from the feelings that ordinary people have. That’s just not true, especially when your pastor used to be a lawyer! This is where I get to make a confession: I’ve always wanted a Jaguar.  Like all men, I like cars. I even like fast and expensive cars, even though I’m one of the slowest drivers on the face of the planet. When I was a lawyer, I used to think that people made fun of me because I drove less expensive cars than the other members of the firm. It always made me feel inferior. About two or three years after I buy any car, I passed by a new Jaguar and I begin to wish I could have one. It is then I have to remember to be content with what I have!

This is the third and last principle I want to lift up for you this morning:  We will never live within our means, save, or develop generosity until and unless we learn to be content with what we have! In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts it this way:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matthew 6:25-34).

When I began this week’s sermon, I learned that the Greek word for lazy has within it the element of fear. [6] The lazy servant was a fearful servant who did not know or trust in the loving care of God for his people and so is not enabled by grace to live in the Spirit of Wisdom and Love. He failed to see the love and mercy, the grace of God, and so fearfully hid his talents. That is why he was not faithful. The same can be true of us. Until we can accept the loving care of our Heavenly Father, we will always worry about and misuse money.

Our society is restlessly materialistic. It’s also restlessly anxious and fearful. As Christians, we can give no better witness to our faith then to live joyfully and contently with what we have. This does not mean that we don’t work hard, plan for the future, try to earn more, or enjoy the good things of life. It means that today we are content with what we have today. Therefore we are not filled with worry.

Conclusion

I’ve been a Christian for more than thirty years, a Christian leader for almost as long, and a pastor for a quarter of a century. I can testify that how we handle our money impacts our marriages, our level of anxiety, our happiness, our health, and our ability to withstand the inevitable difficulties of life, and our future happiness on this earth and in the world to come, I suspect. Financial issues sit behind many divorces and other problems in our society. Therefore, it is important that Christians learn to manage our finances wisely.

Those of you that are in small groups may want to talk about the contents of the devotional and of the sermons for the next two weeks. If you’re not in a small group, please try to take advantage of our emphasis this month and next month on small groups. After Easter, you might want to think about doing a Crown Ministry study with your group or another group. [7]

Most of us think of the life of stewardship as a remnant of the law: Something to remind us of how far short we fall and how sinful we are. There is an element of truth in this. The Torah (Law or instructions of God) was given as a standard by which we may judge ourselves. But, that aspect can blind us to a deeper reality: The life of stewardship is just a part of the life of grace. We will never be the stewards God calls us to be until and unless we open our hearts and allow the grace of God to fill us with the power to be the people God has called us to be.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] These parables are: the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), the Parable of the Talents (vv. 14-30), and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (vv. 31-46).

[2] The variances of responses to the Gospel are a constant theme in Jesus’ teaching. The parable of the four soils (or “Sower” s it is sometimes known) is about these different responses. See, Mark 4:1-20). In Matthew 25, we are confronted with the problem of foolishly forgetting to be filled with the Holy Spirit and constantly watchful (the Parable of the Ten Virgins), the problem of being poor stewards (The Parable of the Talents), and the problem of being so concerned with our own affairs that we do not attend to the suffering of others (the Parable of the Sheep and Goats).

[3] Carl Blomberg, “Matthew” in The New American Commentary vol. 25 (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 375.

[4] Ron Blue, Master Your Money: A Step By Step Guide for Experiencing Financial Contentment (Nashville, TN: Thomas and Nelson, 1986, 1991, 1997, 2004, 2016).

[5] Most people are familiar with quicken and other basic programs. There are so many that I am not going to note them all. The advent of tablet computers has spawned numerous apps that can be purchased or downloaded. They are all good if a person will use them. Just take the time to find the one you will use.

[6] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew” in the New American Commentary, footnote 3 above at 373-375.

[7]Crown Financial Ministries is one of the best programs and the one used at Bay Presbyterian Church. In my former congregation, the leadership preferred Dave Ramsey. What you do is not nearly as important as doing something. See, Crown Financial Ministries at https://www.crown.org/ and Dave Ramsey at www.daveramsey.com. Each of these organizations has multiple programs for different groups.

The Harmony of Transformed Hearts

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Silmarillion, creation is depicted as an act of divine music-making. [1] There is a great harmony, then disharmony, then the harmony grows louder and louder and finally the harmony of creation emerges victorious. It is a long, lovely meditation on the creation of the world and the harmony God intended, which has been marred by sin, evil, and distortion. Tolkien managed to create a metaphor that is both consistent with the Biblical story of creation (Tolkien was a devout Christian) and in many respects consistent with what the science of his day believed about the creation of the world.

The ancient Chinese felt that the music of an era was an important factor in its growth or decay. Here is one quote that summarizes their view:

Music is the harmony of heaven and earth while rites are the measurement of heaven and earth. Through harmony all things are made known, through measure all things are properly classified. Music comes from heaven, rites are shaped by earthly designs. [2]

Music is important. The Bible is full of references to music. The entire book of Psalms contains poetry, most of which was sung in the worship of the Jewish people. We know that music was a part of Jewish and early Christian worship. Music has always been a part of Christian worship from the early church forward. [3]  Paul quotes early hymns or praise songs on occasion. For example, in Philippians the familiar “Christ Hymn” may originally have been a song early Christians sang:

“In your relationships with one another,

have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God

something to be used to his own advantage;

He made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

From Disharmony to Harmony

Near the beginning of Colossians, Paul describes in detail who Jesus Christ was and what Christ has done for the human race. Christ, Paul says, is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over creation (Colossians 1:15). The fullness of God is present in Jesus (1:19; 2:9-10). By him everything was made and is before all things, and in Christ all things find their proper place (Colossians 1:15-17). Christ is the source of our salvation by his sacrifice on the cross (1:14-23). Jesus is the head of the church (1:18; 2:12ff). Paul goes on to speak of the implications of what he has said: We must put to death all in us that is contrary to the Gospel and to the spiritual wholeness God has for us (3:1-10). Then Paul tells the Colossians (and us) that we must “put on” the new life of Christ. Here is how Paul puts it:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).

Let us pray: God of peace and wholeness, come into our hearts that we might find that peace that passes all understanding that we can find only in You. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Eliminating Disharmony

 In The Silmarillion, Tolkien uses musical dissonance for a reality we all experience: There is some disharmony in all of us, a kind of spiritual and moral brokenness that distorts our lives and prevents us from being as healthy, happy, whole, balanced, and harmonious as God intended. It is as if we are a slightly flawed piece of music!

Every pastor observes people who rightly have a kind of anger because of mistreatment they endured as children. As understandable as that anger is, it still impacts their human relationships, their businesses, families, congregations, and the like. Years ago, I was in a leadership relationship with someone with a lot of anger against authority figures because of a damaging childhood. My position required that I be in many meetings with that person. I often came home tired and irritable. I could understand and love the person, but that did not eliminate the relational damage that person occasionally inflicted on others.

Paul urges the Colossians to put away sexual and other immorality, greed, uncontrolled desire, anger, rage, malice, slander, and the like (Colossians 3:1-12). So long as we are dominated by our natural desires and our fallen human nature, we will always be without the peace of Christ. This begins with how we think. Not so long ago, someone was in my office and said something so very important: “Every negative thought has bad consequences.” Every time we allow negativity, anger, prejudice and the like to rule in our hearts and minds, we not only injure our own harmony, but we injure the harmony of the world around us. Therefore, we need to get rid of it. We cannot find harmony we desire if our lives are ruled by immorality, uncontrolled desire, greed, anger, rage, malice and all the rest.

Achieving Harmony

It is not enough to just do away with our negative habits. There is a place in Matthew where Jesus has healed a demon possessed person (See Matthew 12). This healing gives him an opportunity to talk about the Evil One and how he operates. Near the end of the teaching, Jesus makes this observation: When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it goes away. However, it will come back if nothing replaces the darkness and dysfunction. And when it comes, things maybe worse than they were before (Matthew 12:43-45).

In this teaching, Jesus is making a shrewd observation. I’ve had to deal with a lot of people with addictions over the course of my ministry. In many cases, for a short period of time, a person may achieve some kind of sobriety. However, if that person doesn’t achieve a true healing for the addiction, often it returns—sometimes, worse than before. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people relapse and end up worse than they were before or even die. You see, the demon returned, found the house empty, and walked right in.

This is why Paul tells us that it is not enough to do away with negative spiritual qualities: Once we come to Christ, we still need to put on some new spiritual qualities! It’s like getting dressed for a party. It’s not enough for me to come home and take off my jeans and other clothes before a fancy party. I need to put on a Tuxedo!

Once we’ve taken off judgmentalism, we need to put on compassion. Once we have taken off rudeness, we need to put on kindness. Once we’ve put off pride, we need to put on humility. Once we’ve taken off greed, we need to put on generosity. Once we’ve taken off being irritable, we need to put on patience. Once we’ve taken off being unforgiving, we need to put on forgiveness. And above all, we need to put on love, because it is love that binds together all the virtues (Colossians 3:12).

When we put on these virtues, the spiritual qualities of Christ, Paul tells us that peace begins to rule in our hearts. Paul was a Jew. The Hebrew word for peace is “Shalom.” Shalom is more than the absence of conflict. Shalom is a state when things are in harmony as they should be. Those of us who have been married have experienced arguments in our marriages. And we all know that when the argument is over, and we have made up a kind of peace enters our marriage, as marital harmony is restored. The same thing is true in every area of life. When we get the disharmony out of our life, we gain a kind of harmony. And in that harmony, we can experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control and all of the other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

Music and the Divine Harmony

At the end of our reading, Paul urges the Colossians to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as the Word of God comes to dwell in their hearts and transforms them. We are to be singers of God’s harmony, not just here but everywhere. Our lives need to become a hymn of worship to God. Nevertheless, if we cannot achieve it here, it is unlikely we will achieve it anywhere.

We are in a series called “Heart of Worship.” There is a lot in the title. Worship is not primarily a matter of what we do. It’s a matter of the heart. The “Heart of Worship” is a heart oriented towards God. The heart of worship is a heart that is filled with the love of Christ, that is the self-giving, self-sacrificial love God showed us when he died for our sins on the cross. The love of God sometimes requires that we give up our own personal preferences in worship in order to serve our fellow church members or others. I can’t say it any nicer, because that is the fact.

I am not musical. When I listen to the radio in the car, which is seldom, I listen to whatever Kathy wants to listen to. If I’m on my own, I usually think or listen to classical music. I was forty years old before I experienced contemporary worship. It wasn’t something I was initially attracted to. When I went to my former church, they had a leading-edge contemporary worship service. For the first time, I was confronted with drums in worship. Because of where I sat during worship, those drums were three feet away from my ears. In the beginning, I really didn’t like it. Over the years, I got to know the drummer well. He was one of the finest drummers in the City of Memphis and a strong Christian. He was a gentle and kind soul. After a while, I wasn’t even aware of the drums. I was aware of my friend who was playing them.

I’ve told the following story more than once of the past few weeks: In my first church, we had a young man with musical ability. He learned to play the piano. Occasionally, we had him play the piano during worship. It wasn’t perfect, but we all liked it. Then, he decided to learn to play the violin. At the beginning, he was pretty bad. If you think drums are hard to listen to in worship, a new violin player is infinitely more difficult! But we had him play many times. Today, this young man is a choir director and church organist who plays the piano, organ, and violin.

In my second church, we had a young man who was majoring in guitar at the University of Memphis. On my first Christmas Eve, at the most traditional midnight communion service, we asked him to play “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Frankly it never occurred to me that he would do it with an electric guitar, but he did! In addition, he was in that stage, which at least one of my children went through, where he liked to play loud, use the guitar pedals a lot and distort the music as much as possible. (I call this the “Jimmy Hendrix stage”.) During this phase it’s been my experience that a lot of grimacing goes on as the guitar is being played by an emerging rock star. I got some complaints after that service. But, I supported what he’d done. He graduated from college, went to one of the most prestigious musical graduate schools in America, and today is a choir director, song writer, a worship leader, in of one of the largest churches in our denomination. To be quite frank, I did not particularly appreciate that first guitar piece I heard him play. But I did love him. I did love his family. And so, I supported what he was doing.

This past week, I addressed the College of Elders on the subject of servant leadership. I shared with them some facts about our culture. We went through some of the differences between the world in which I grew up and a lot of you grew up and post-modern America. I reminded the group that not all of post-modernism is bad. [4]

Musically, our culture has changed dramatically since 1960. Since 1960, a new genre or genres of music that we tend to lump together as “Contemporary Christian music” has emerged. For those of us who can appreciate what is going on, it is unbelievable the volume of Christian music that has been written. Much of it is quite good. It may not be to my taste, but it’s quite good. We old-timers need to remember this, and the younger generation sometimes needs to remember that the Christian musical tradition has created some wonderful music.

Conclusion

One of my favorite novels is The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. [5] My favorite character is the Music Master, who is the protagonist’s mentor. The music master finds young Joseph Knetch, who will become the Master of the Glass Bead Game, as a young lad. He loves and trains the boy. Knetch is a talented musician, but he decides not to become a musician as the Music Master had hoped. Yet, over the years, the music master helps Joseph. Near the end of his life, the Music Master becomes a kind of musical saint, as the music upon which he has meditated all of his life transforms his soul into a silent harmony.

As Christians, this is what God wants for us. He wants us to be transformed by the word of God—that Word that became flesh in Jesus. He wants our worship, our prayers, a reading of the word of God, our music, are singing, everything that we do not just here but in all of our lives to become one great him of praise to the living God.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Jr.R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion Christopher Tolkien, ed (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1977). The first part describes as the creation of Tolkien’s literary universe in which his hooks, including the Lord of the Rings will be set.  The beginning of the Silmarillion describes the creation of the physical universe, the creation of angelic beings, how one of them fell (Melkor, and describes some other characters that appear in the Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf and Sauron. See, http://fourletternerd.com/the-silmarillion-and-the-creation-of-middle-earth/. See also, Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

[2] William Maim, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, “Chinese Music”  Updated November 16, 2017). www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-music  (Downloaded January 19, 2017).

[3] See, Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). This excellent book focuses on the way in which the love of God is reflected in creation. Carol Rettew brought this book to my attention this week.

[4] Some of characteristics of postmodernity can be: loss of the transcendent (No God), critical thinking taken to extremes (No Truth), reduction of everything to material powers and human will. (No Transcendent Spirit), deconstructive, revolutionary thinking about society, morals, families, etc. (No Rules), the state and other institutions taking on an importance previously reserved to God (No Human Limits), extreme individualism combined with ethical nihilism. (No Real Community). This is, however, an oversimplification.

[5] Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (New York, NY: Holt Reinheart and Winston (Picador Press), 1990). In some American translations this book is titled “Magister Ludi” so do not be confused by a different name.

Heart of Worship: Keep the main thing the Main Thing

This is  Epiphany when we remember the coming of the Wise Men, who fell down and worshiped the Baby Jesus and brought him precious gifts (Matthew 2:11). The Wise Men were not Jews. They were Magi from the East, probably from around Babylon (Matt 2:1-2). Christians celebrate Epiphany as the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The Wise Men included the first non-Jews to see the Messiah. When they came, they fell down, worshiped Jesus, and gave him precious gifts. We are called to do the same. We are called here week by week to fall down before the Risen Christ. We are also called to bring him gifts, and two gifts he wants most are for us to obey his commandment to love one another and his commission to share the good news and make disciples until he returns.

It is no secret churches struggle for unity in the area of worship styles. Don’t feel bad if this characterizes your congregation. Frankly, I am surprised that some churches went along so long without experiencing tensions between those who prefer contemporary and more traditional Christian music. Most congregations experienced it in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

When I was in my early 30’s the young people in our church requested permission to experiment with “Contemporary Worship.” The service was held on Sunday evening and attended by about 200 or more people, not all young. Not unpredictably, a bit of conflict developed between proponents of the two worship services. When I went to Advent in 1999, they had two very different kinds of worship experiences and the two groups were in tension. It was while studying The Purpose Driven Life as a congregation that we finally reached unity about this issue. [1] When thinking about worship, it helps to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Our text is from the last chapter of Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 28:16-20).

Let us Pray: God of All Wisdom, Love, and Hidden Power: Come among us as we begin a new year. Allow us to be filled with your Spirit and, like Jesus, always about our Father’s business, wherever we may be. In Jesus Precious Name, Amen

What is Worship, Anyway?

Our text begins by reminding us that, when the disciples came to receive the Great Commission, the first thing they did was worship Jesus. The word used in this passage literally means to fall down or bow down and worship, to pay homage to and to submit to as a sovereign. [2] To the Jewish and Christian mind, God and only God is worthy of worship, and when the disciples fell at the feet of the risen Lord and worshiped him they were recognizing that Jesus was the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, of one being with the Father.

When we come to worship, we come to bow down before God, to pay our respects to God, to pray to God, to listen to the Word of God, to hear again the commandments of God, so that we may leave renewed in our devotion to God and in our commitment to follow God’s word and leading in our daily lives.

Whenever music, or a preacher, or a worship leader, or anything else takes the place of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our worship, we are doomed to division until we remember what true worship is. This has important ramifications: We cannot and must not make a person, a theology, style of music, a particular liturgy, or anything else our primary concern. God revealed in Jesus Christ is our primary concern in Christian worship.

Just as importantly, when we worship we are not religious consumers of religious experiences. We are bowing down, offering ourselves to God. We are acknowledging that God is God and we are not God. We do not come to worship primarily to hear a message, listen to music, recite a liturgy, or whatever. We worship to offer ourselves to the Living God.

Worship and Christian Community: It is Not about Me (or You)

Our text tells us that the “Eleven” came and worshiped Jesus. The remaining disciples, after Judas betrayed Jesus, when the time came for Jesus to ascend into heaven, came together and worshiped Jesus. We can too easily pass over this fact: Jesus called his disciples into community and they worshiped him then and always since as a community. Worship is essentially communal. The Jews worshiped God at the Temple and in synagogues as a community. Since the beginning, Christians have worshiped God in community.

The word for “Church” is a Greek word that literally means those who have been gathered out of the nations to worship God. [3] When Paul speaks to Christian believers he almost always does so in the plural. [4] God did not call each of us into a merely private relationship with Him. He calls Christians to enter into the Divine Fellowship of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a divine fellowship that has an earthly counterpart. That earthly counterpart is the church of Christ as it exists in a real, concrete form in real concrete places all over the globe.

In churches today, with multiple worship services, in more than one style, with people who either do not know each other or do not know each other well, this can be hard! However, we must always remember that we were called together, in different services, with different liturgies, from different families, communities, jobs, social backgrounds, etc. to worship Christ in loving community!

Worship just cannot not be completely divorced from community. Worship is a part of, and flows from, Christian community and its long, rich history. Jesus called twelve people to become his disciples in community. He discipled them in community during his earthly ministry. His last commandment to them was to love one another (John 15:12; I John 3:11). We are called first and foremost to love one another in a deep, life changing community that mirrors the community God has, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the first and most important thing God wants of us. This next year, the most important thing Christians will do or can do is to build community, real authentic Christian community in our congregation.

Worship Leads to Action: The Great Commission and Worship

It is no surprise that, immediately after the disciples recognized Jesus for who he was and fell down at his feet to worship him, at that moment, he gave them the Great Commission. The Great Commission is not some minor add-on to the Gospels. It is central to the Gospels. All four Gospels and Acts contain the command of Jesus to carry the Good News into the entire world. [5]

Today’s text is the most famous of the renderings:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 28:16-20).

Because Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is and what God intends to do in history, because in Jesus Christ the wisdom (Word) of God and the self-giving love of God is revealed in human form, because God vindicated Jesus by revealing in him God’s eternal life, because all the hidden, secret, power of God is present in Jesus, and because the Gospel is Good News of God’s love for everyone, we are to go and make disciples, followers of Jesus who have heard, learned, and internalized his word and live out in their daily lives the divine life of Jesus, sharing that Good News in word and deed wherever we and they may be or are doing.

In Romans, Paul speaks of this outward-focused aspect of worship when he says:

Therefore, 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).

Our truest worship of God is what we do because we come to to worship Him week by week, because we are in community with other believers, because we have heard the Great Commission and Great Commandment, — because of all this, we give ourselves wholly to God in our average, day to day, lives. And, what should constitute the primary focus of our daily lives? Sharing the love of God and the Good News of the Gospel with others as we are able.

Worship: Music and the “Heart of Worship”

Life changing worship has been an important part of Christian life since the beginning of the Christian movement, and not surprisingly, not everyone agreed even in the early church about worship. The early Church struggled with questions like, “Who should be able to lead in worship?” “How big a role should be played by speaking in tongues, prophesy and the like?” “How should communion be shared and when?” [6]  The questions of music in worship, how much music and what kind of music should be heard has frequently cropped up during the course of Christian history. [7] When Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and composed the music for the hymn, his music would have been considered contemporary music, and far from the chants with which the medieval church was familiar. [8]

It helps if we remember to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing: Jesus is at the heart of our worship. Jesus, not our preacher, our music, our liturgy, is the main thing. We do not come here for any other reason than to worship Jesus and Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing in our lives.

This message takes part of its name from the Christian song, “Heart of Worship” written in the late 1990s by Matt Redman. [9] The song began with Redman’s pastor deciding that music had become a barrier to worship within Matt’s home church, “Soul Survivor,” in Watford, England. “There was something missing in their worship, so the pastor did a pretty brave thing,” he recalls. “He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”

Reminding his church family to be producers in worship, not just consumers, the pastor asked, “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” [10] The question initially led to an embarrassing silence, but eventually people broke into a-cappella songs and heartfelt prayers, encountering God in a fresh way. Redman goes on to say that “Before long, we reintroduced the musicians and sound system, as we’d gained a new perspective that worship is all about Jesus, and He commands a response in the depths of our souls no matter what the circumstance and setting. “ The Heart of Worship’ simply describes what occurred.”

I’m not very musical, but my wife is. When we first dated she had a grey Mercury Monarch, for those who remember that can. One of our first dates, we took her car and she was playing an old Willie Nelson album called, “Stardust”. On that album, there is a song called “All of Me,” which really does not give terribly good dating advice, but we fell in love listening to it so it is meaningful. This secular song, however, has a message we all need to sing to Christ: “All of me, why not take all of me/ Can’t you see that I’m no good without you”. [11]

God wants us to worship Him, and we do when we give “all of me” to Christ

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

[2] See “proskyneo” in Gerhard Kittle, et all, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 948ff; Spiros Zodhiates, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary (New Testament) (Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 1992), 1233. The term means literally to fall down before, to worship, to pay respect of homage to, to show reverence towards, to adore, etc.

[3]  The Greek word, “eckaleo” literally means those called out. Just as the ancient Jews were called out of slavery to worship God, so we are called out from the false God’s of the world to worship the One True God of Love.

[4] The Greek language, like most others, makes a clear distinction between singular and plural forms. In English translations, however, the word “you” is used for both singular and plural pronouns. Christians addressed as “the light of the world” (Mt.5:14), “the salt of the earth” (Mt. 5:14), “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor.3:16,17; 6:19), and “the Body of Christ” (I Cor.12:27), are all in the plural. In other words, all these are communal statements. Our being designated as “the light of the world” (Mt.5:14), “the salt of the earth” (Mt.5:14), “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor.3:16,17; 6:19), and “the Body of Christ” (I Cor.12:27), are all in the plural. See The Pioneers New Testament: pioneernt.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/word-study-142-you-you-all-and-each-of-you/ (Downloaded January 4, 2018).

[5] Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8.

[6] The Books of First and Second Corinthians contain many passages showing that the early Church struggled over many of the same issues with which we struggle, such as “What should the role of women be in worship?” How should people of lower social classes be treated?” “How big a role should the gifts of the Spirit and especially speaking in tongues play in worship?” and other questions.

[7] We forget that the church has always had elements, such as some parts of the Church of Christ today, that do not believe that music should be a part of worship. At every great musical transition in history, there have been those who did not think that the new music was appropriate.

[8] Most scholars think Luther wrote the hymn between 1521 and 1529, with the majority of scholars settling on 1527–28 during a period of personal crisis. It was written as a hymn version of Psalm 46, and was put to a popular tune. It may not, however, have been a beer hall tune unless an existing tune was incorporated into the hymn tune. See, “Luther and the Bar Song: The Truth Please” Issues (Downloaded January 3, 2018).

[9] Matt Redman, “Heart of Worship” (Thankyou Music, 1999). The introduction to this sermon is based on an article at Crosswalk.com and can be found at: https://www.crosswalk.com/church/worship/ song-story-matt-redmans-the-heart-of-worship-1253122.html. (Downloaded January 4, 2018). The most well-known version was recorded by Michael W. Smith. The Lyrics read, “I’m coming back to the heart of worship/And it’s all about You all about You Jesus/ I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it /When it’s all about You all about You Jesus.

[10] One reason churches can have issues with the so-called worship wars is that American Christians, probably subconsciously, sometimes adopt a consumer view of what we do in worship. This was the problem Matt Redman’s pastor saw. When I was in seminary our evangelism professor once made a comment that contained an unfortunate element of truth: He felt that American worship had become a private form of religious entertainment, focused on celebrity pastors and musicians, both in traditional and in newer contemporary congregations, with the excellence of the preacher, or the music, or whatever, being the reason people came to church. We don’t need to feel particularly condemned by this. In consumer society, it is no surprise that a consumer, entertainment oriented kind of worship is a constant temptation. If worship is between Jesus and me, then what I desire in preaching, praying and music is what matters. However, if I am called to be a part of a fellowship of Christians, then what matters is the needs of my fellow Christians as well as my personal needs. We do not have to like everything or everyone or approve of everything. We just have to sacrificially love everyone and sacrifice our preferences for them out of a center in God’s love. This is hard in contemporary society.

[11] Gerald Marks/Seymour Simons, All of Me lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Round Hill Music Big Loud Songs, Marlong Music Corp. (First recorded by Billie Holliday, 1949).

Thankful for the Spirit

Any first year in ministry is difficult. When I was called to my first congregation, the church had experienced conflict. It was in a small, rural, area. Over the years, it had dwindled from 300 or so members 100 or so.  Worship attendance could be as low as thirty-five people, and about eighty people were present when the vote was called to approve me as their pastor. When Kathy and I arrived, there was a need for a tremendous outpouring of energy. As a result, by the end of my first year, I was completely exhausted.

The next summer, we took the children to Montreat, North Carolina.  If you’ve never been there, it’s lovely. The mountains of that area are just tall enough for a plant called “Galax” to grow. Galax has a unique quality. You can pick Galax in July, and as long as you keep it in water it will release a fragrance all the way to Christmas.

One day, we took the children on a hike up Grandfather Mountain to pick Galax.  About halfway up, we reached a place where Galax grows. It was a lovely spot, a little glen through which a stream flowed. It was a rocky stream, surrounded by fallen trees and boulders.  As I remember it, there was an area where the water fell for just a few inches. As it flowed over the rocks, it made a wonderful sound.

While Kathy and the children picked Galax, I sat on a rock and watched the water flow down the stream. Suddenly, I experience a filling of the Holy Spirit.  It was as if all the worries, all the concern, and all of the exhaustion of the past year dissipated in a single, wonderful moment as I watched water flow down that stream and thought about the way in which water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  This never has happened to me since, but I treasure that day.

This morning, we are going to be visiting about the way in which the Holy Spirit has fallen and continues to fall upon us and upon the Christian community.

Here I am, Send Me.

If you are not a Christian, you may be wondering, “What is Pentecost?” Pentecost is fifty days after Passover. It was the Jewish “Festival of Weeks,” a day of remembering the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, thought to have occurred fifty days after Passover. The symbolism is important. On Sinai, God gave the law to Moses. At Pentecost, God gives the Spirit that enables us to fulfill the Law by giving us new hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jeremiah 31:33).

Here is how Acts describes the event:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-12).

Preparing for the Spirit.

Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus meeting with his disciples. For forty days after the resurrection, Jesus spoke with his disciples (Acts 2:3). Jesus asked them not to leave the city of Jerusalem, but instead to wait for a gift—the Gift of the Spirit (v. 4). Jesus promised that when they received the Spirit, they would witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8).

As discussed in Acts 1, what God has asked us to do while we wait for an infilling of the Holy Spirit is to:

  • Build a unified community,
  • Pray diligently,
  • Study our Bibles, and
  • Prepare for the future.

Some years ago, there was a famous revival in Wales. The Welsh Revival was a part of the greater Methodist revivals of the 19th Century. One evening, a young man who had received a mighty calling from God went to his own church. He asked a few people to stay after the meeting and visit with him. He asked them to pray. Here are the specific things he asked them to do:

  • First, he asked them to confess their own sins and ask for forgiveness from God.
  • Second, he asked them to remove from their own lives anything that was not in accordance with God’s will.
  • Third, he asked them to be totally yielded to the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Fourth, he asked them to publically declare their faith in Christ.

There are things that precede true revival, and personal prayer,: confession, repentance, changed lives, and sharing the Gospel are some of the central elements.

Getting Clear about the Spirit.

As we pray for the Spirit of God to come upon us, it is a good idea to think carefully about who it is we are asking to come for dinner in our lives and congregation! For many people, the Spirit is either “Casper the Friendly Ghost” or a kind of disembodied power, like the Force in the Star Wars movies. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. It is the presence of the living God. Therefore, we can be sure that the Spirit is the same Spirit present when God created the world (Gen. 1:1).  It is the rational presence of the living Word of God that became flesh in Jesus Christ. (Proverbs 8; John 1:1).

As Christians, we believe that God was fully revealed in Jesus the Christ God loved the world and the human race so much that he sent his Only Begotten Son to dwell with us full of grace and truth (John 3:16; John 1:14). In particular, we see the love of God made visible form in Christ, and in particular in Christ on the cross. Paul and the apostle John also tells us that we know what love is because while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8; 1 John 3:16).  The reason that we cannot think of the Holy Spirit as a force or a power is that, when God wanted to reveal exactly who he is and the nature of his power, he revealed his presence and power by personally dying on a cross, giving his life to save his fallen, helpless, lost people. God’s power is a hidden, secret power.

When God reveals himself, he reveals himself as goodness, truth, and beauty. He reveals himself in the order of the universe and in his silent, secret power, the power of God’s Wisdom and Love that underlies all the powers we see around us.

Pentecost Comes Today

I did my Doctor of Ministry degree at Asbury Seminary. On February 3, 1970, the students at Asbury seminary gathered for chapel. The service was scheduled to last for one hour. Instead, it lasted for 185 hours, 24 hours a day, for a week. It began with a time of testimony in which one student after another came forward to talk about their Christian life. Gradually, students and faculty members found themselves weeping. People formed small groups in the chapel and began to confess their sins to one another, ask for forgiveness, pray and sing. The President of the Seminary, Dr. Kinlaw, was out of town and both fearful and skeptical about what was happening. When he returned, he went to the chapel, which seats about 1500 people. Before he left, he was convinced the experience was real.

My friend remembers people praying all night in dorm rooms, confessing sins, and sharing deep hurts with one another. News of the revival traveled around the nation, and people flocked to the little town of Wilmore, Kentucky. When the service was over, students from Asbury shared their story in other places, and sometimes revival broke out there as well.

Many of the students who were present went on to become pastors, missionaries, and church leaders. Those who were present testified that they could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Dr. Kinlaw put it this way:

[Y]ou may not understand this, but the only way I know how to account for this [the revival] is that last Tuesday morning, about 20 minutes until Eleven, the Lord Jesus walked into Hughes Auditorium, and He’s been there ever since, and you’ve got the whole community paying tribute to His presence.[1]

Where Do We Go from Here?

A lot of Christians are worried about a lot of things right now. Some folks are concerned about our nation. Some folks are concerned about our economy. Some folks are concerned about their families or homes or neighborhood. Some folks are worried about our church. Here is what I hope we can remember from today:

  • First, we have a promise from God that he will send his Spirit if we wait and pray.
  • Second, we know that God only sends his Spirit in response to unity, study, prayer, confession, changed lives, and changed behavior.
  • Third, we know what to look for—Changed Lives and our own personal life first of all.

As we prepare for a new day in our lives, communities, churches, nations and world, we need to build community (which we will talk about next week), pray, confess, and change. God is coming. We just need to get ready.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A Revival Account Asbury 1970 The Forerunner (March 31, 2008). My account is based on this article at www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0585_Asbury_Revival_1970. Dr. Kinlaw’s story is on U-Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qOqitIKUNs.

Labor Day Meditation: The Eternal Value of Good Work

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10)

This past week, one of my meditations from Bonheoffer had to do with work. In his book, No Rusty Swords, he talks about work: “God has called each one of us to do His work in His time.” [1]

In his later years, Bonheoffer came to realize the importance of lay ministry and the ministry of the people of God in the world. In commenting on the passage I just quoted,  Charles Ringma, says, “We are not simply to be guardians of the good things that God has done in the past, nor are we only those who pray for what may happen in the future. We need to be intimately involved in the issues of our time. Different members of the Christian church will identify what these issues are differently. But however we arrange our priorities for our world, we must include caring for God’s creation, encouraging good government, sharing the Gospel, and proclaiming justice and righteousness.” [2]

This passage gives us some very deep and important teachings. First, Christians cannot just worship on Sunday, study our Bibles, and pray about the problems of our world. We have to work on making the world a better place as the Kingdom of God enters into the world through the live of believers. Second, we cannot wait complete agreement among Christians before we act. Different believers will see the world differently. Finally, we must all share our faith we must all speak out for justice and righteousness, public and private. We must all care for God’s creation. We must all work for better government. We must all tend for the garden that God has given us, whether it be large or small, important or insignificant.

The Bible begins with the human race in a garden we call “Eden.” Some Christians speak of Eden as if it was a place where there was no need to work. Genesis paints a somewhat different picture of this “garden,. Listen to two quotes from the Bible: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Genesis 2 puts it this way, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15).

This afternoon Kathy and I went out and bought some plants for our new home. We have a small back yard that was well kept by the former owners, but parts of it need a bit of care and new plantings. When we got home, I did not plant bed we are working on. It was mid-day and hot in San Antonio. I did not want to be sore tomorrow.

When I was a lawyer, I hardly ever worked in the yard. As a seminary student, I had no time. Then, we moved to Brownsville, Tennessee and our first church. Surrounded by farmers and gardeners on every side (and with plenty of guidance, advice and good counsel at hand, for which I am eternally thankful), I planted a garden in the back yard of the manse. When we moved to Memphis, my training in Brownsville allowed me to do most of the landscaping for a long time. Based on all this, I can convey to my readers one certain truth: Gardening, even in paradise, is hard work, especially on a hot, muggy, summer day.

The garden of Eden was never meant to be a place of leisure. God created the world. We were intended to be about the business of making that world more beautiful, more orderly, more just, and more productive. We human beings were made for work. We were made for the work of making the world a better place. We were made to till the garden of God’s good creation. We were made to expend the energy, strength, and brains that God has given to us in the precise way that we can best do that. We were made, and we are remade in Christ, “for the good works God prepared for us beforehand to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

This is Labor Day Weekend. It happens to be one of my favorite holidays. This is the weekend we celebrate the working people of America. Labor Day reminds us of all the endless generations of farmers who built a nation of plenty out of a wilderness. Labor Day reminds us of those who opened the West, built the transcontinental railways, created the greatest manufacturing nation in the world and made of our nation, the “Arsenal of Democracy” at a time of great danger to freedom. Labor Day reminds us of those who even today work and sweat that we might live in peace and plenty.

Those of us who have jobs we call, “White Collar” need to approach this day with a bit of humility. Interestingly for me, Jesus does not seem to have wanted to enter history either as a religious professional or as a “teacher of the law,” the two careers I have embraced. In fact he speaks ill of them both from time to time. He was content to be born and trained as a carpenter. Jesus was a laborer; and, his life, death and resurrection sanctified all laborers and all honest labor.

One reason that I did not work in the garden today was simple: I am waiting for Monday.

PS: Our hearts go out to all those who are suffering from Hurricane Harvey. Many people have asked about our family. We are fine. The hurricane really never caused any damage in San Antonio.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonheoffer, No Rusty Swords (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977). This book is a collection of Bonheoffer’s writings on a variety of subjects. Many years ago as a law student, this was a favorite work of mine.

[2] Charles Ringma, Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonheoffer (Colorado Springs, CO: Pinion Press, 2000), reading for August 25.

Avoiding the False God of Convenience

Since retirement, I have been using a little devotional guide by Charles Ringma called, “Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  Each day has a short quote from Bonhoeffer, a Bible verse, and a reflection by Ringma. I intend to use this little devotional guide for the first year of my “post-Advent Presbyterian Church” life. The devotional is very different than the devotional life I had as a pastor. Thus far, I am enjoying doing something a bit different devotionally. I don’t know how long this will last, but I am enjoying it and intend to finish my year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This week, one of the devotions had to do with our human tendency to seek God’s actual presence only when we have exhausted all human avenues to accomplish something we desire to accomplish. All of us, pastors and non-pastors, have a tendency to call on God and seek God most passionately when all else fails. Ringma reminds us that, “God is not not a god of the gaps when we have run out of human resources or explanations. God is not be called on only when human wisdom fails. He is not waiting in the wings to be called on only when things run into difficulty. He is there at the center–central to our wisdom, to our answers, to our very life. His wisdom is not geared for a life of religious escapism. It is sufficiently comprehensive to embrace family and political life, personal faith and social transformation.”

This morning, as has become our custom, we attended two different churches. In one of them, the pastor was talking about the false God’s we rely upon a lot of the time. One of them, partially responsible for some of our social tensions is the “God of My Tribe,” that racially and socially acceptable God that defends MY PEOPLE. There are a lot of false God’s in our culture. Perhaps most importantly, the God of MY Personal Peace. This is the God of wealth, health, perpetual youth, and personal fulfillment.  This is the God of pleasure, of security, and of affluence. There is no such God. It is an idol we have created in our own minds–and like all false gods, it must surely fail us and our culture.

The text for this morning’s sermon at one of our churches was from Second Corinthians. It reads like this,Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” II Corinthians 1:3-7).

Over and over again, Paul talks about “comfort.” To the modern ear to talk about “a God of comfort”  seems to mean that God is a God who makes us comfortable, at ease, without problems. This misunderstands what Paul is saying. The Latin word that we translates “Comfort” is made up of two words that mean, “To come beside and strengthen.” This puts an entirely different perspective on what Paul means. What Paul is saying is that God is the God who comes beside us to strengthen us so that we can face difficulties, aging, loss of vigor, disease, loss of jobs, of meaning, even of life itself. The ONE TRUE GOD is not a god who allows us to escape life, but the ONE TRUE GOD who comes beside us and strengthens us for this life. This God is always with us, in life and in death, and in every circumstance in between.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God came close to the human condition and suffered with and for us all that we can suffer: injustice, betrayal, disease, death. In Christ and in the resurrection, God demonstrated his power over our circumstances. Sometimes he will deliver us from them when we cry out to him. Sometimes, he simply walks with us through them.

Bonhoeffer knew such comfort. He was not delivered from the Nazi’s. They ultimately killed him. But he had a powerful understanding that God was with him in his circumstances empowering him to face them. Those around him at the end understood this and remarked on his remarkable calm in the face of suffering, injustice and death.

 

Amen.

When Everyone Does as They Please

If there is one single value that underlies American culture, it is the ideal of freedom. When our forefathers and mothers came to America, they came in search of freedom. The societies of Medieval Europe were highly structured. One’s social and one’s economic status was almost entirely determined by birth. The kingdoms of the Middle Ages were ruled by hereditary elites who owned and controlled most of the farm land. This was at a time when land was the primary source of wealth. There was little freedom of religion. Most European nations had state religions to which everyone had to subscribe. Economically, most children followed the career of their parents, which for most people meant what we would call “tenant farming.” Most people would never own their own land or leave anything to their children.

The early settlers of America wanted “freedom.” But by this freedom they did not mean “the right to do whatever I want so long as it does not obviously hurt anyone else”. They meant “the right to worship as I decide, to work at the job I desire, and to own a piece of property to leave to my heirs, as opposed to being tenants of a lord”. Today, we often misconstrue the founding principles as “the right to do whatever I please”—and in so doing we create a kind of social chaos as millions of Americans try to get what they want and do what they want without much regard for others.

In this blog, we are thinking about the time of the Judges and about what Israel learned between the death of Joshua and the ministry of the final judge, Samuel. This was a time of great social upheaval and period suffering for the people of Israel. It was also a time of periodic religious and moral decay. Unfortunately, Israel of the time of the Judges was not so different from America today: It was a society that lacked a coherent governmental, moral, religious, and cultural base from which to defend itself and provide security of its people.

Text and Prayer

Our text is from the second chapter of Judges. If you remember from two weeks ago, after Moses died, Israel was ruled for many years by the great military leader, Joshua, after whom Jesus was named. [1] Joshua led Israel as the reentered the Promised Land after over 400 years of slavery and wandering in the wilderness. One would think that Israel would remain faithful to God as a result of seeing the great miracles of their deliverance from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land. But, that was not the case. Here is a passage from the Word of God as it comes from the sixth book of the Bible, Judges:

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.  In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.  But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways (Joshua 2: 6-19).

Let us Pray: God of History: we come before you today asking that you would give to us a word for our lives, for the lives of our children and grandchildren, and for the future of our nation. Convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In The name of the King of King and Lord of Lords we pray, Amen.

The Mistake of Joshua

Moses managed the transition between his leadership and Joshua’s in a magnificent way.. Moses picked Joshua when he was still a young man. Joshua was with Moses at many of the most important moments of Moses’  ministry. Joshua led Israel in a battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-15). He accompanied Moses on the Mountain to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:13). He guarded the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:11). He observed the Spirit of God among the people—and saw times when the spirit was misused (Numbers 11:17-29). He was one of the spies sent by Moses into the Promised Land the first time they entered it (Numbers 13:8; 14 6-38). Joshua was ready for leadership because he had been mentored as a leader by Moses. [2]

Unfortunately, it does not seem that Joshua did as good a job of preparing the people for his absence as did Moses. When Moses died, the people had not yet entered the land, and they knew they needed strong, experienced, competent leadership. Joshua provided that leadership. But, as Joshua grew older, and as the Jewish people conquered more and more of Palestine, the tribal leaders wanted to stop fighting and enjoy their new homes. So, Joshua distributed the land among the tribes of Israel near the end of his life, leaving a bit more land to be conquered. This was a mistake. I allowed the Jews to intermarry and adopt pagan customs. It also gave the enemies of Israel time to regroup. When Joshua died, he did not leave the a single successor. This was also a mistake.

When you are Number 1 it is easy to forget what made you Number 1. When you have had strong leadership, it is easy to forget that leadership is hard and necessary—and that good leaders do not grow on trees. When you have profited from sound judgment, it is easy to forget what a rare quality sound judgment is—and the terrifying consequences of bad decisions and bad leadership.

Problem: Our Short Memory

When the Jews left Egypt a good number of the people quickly forgot what it was like to be in slavery. They began to long for what they mistakenly remembered as the “easy life” as slaves. They remembered the food, the spices, and the waters of Egypt. They remembered the god’s of Egypt and began to long for them. Similarly, after the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they began the process of forgetting the price of their freedom. Judges records that the generation which fought with Joshua continued to hold fast to the faith of Israel and remembered what God had done for them (Judges 2:7). But, the next generations forgot the price of their freedom and the requirement of holiness and faithfulness to God, and so Israel entered a time of social decay. So, Judges records:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them (Judges 2:10-12)

I am afraid we human beings have a problem—we suffer from short memories. One reason it is so important that one generation tell another generation of the mighty acts of God (see Psalm 145:4) is that, if they do not, the next generation will forget the lessons prior generations have learned in toil and sweat and blood.

My parent’s generation was not perfect, but they understood the necessity of hard work and how quickly human society can degenerate into chaos. The generation that went through the Depression and fought World War II saw the consequences of overspending, of high living, and of economic and financial foolishness. They felt the consequences of a lack of preparedness as the nation suffered the attack at Pearl Harbor and the early losses of the Second World War. Consequently, for as long as they were the majority of Americans, they made sure that, whichever party was in power, they managed our national finances more or less wisely, remained unified on foreign affairs, and prepared for conflict should it become necessary. I am afraid that, as they have grown old and passed on, we’ve forgotten the old truths they knew.

Solution: the Example of Gideon

Judges describes a cycle that occurs over and over again in history. The people of Israel fell away from God and suffered economic and military hardships. They were then placed into slavery and underwent oppressions by the surrounding tribes, but particularly by the Philistines. In addition, they suffered a lack of internal security due to their loose confederation. Finally, the people repented and cried out for salvation. Ultimately, a leader arose—a charismatic military leader who provided temporary relief. Unfortunately, some of these leaders were little more than thugs, and some of them ended up as mini-dictators. And, as soon as the danger ended, the people forgot the price of their freedom and went back to worshiping false God’s. In Judges this story is told over and over as it applies to Israel. [3]

Gideon’s story is a good example. When we first meet Gideon, he is hiding in a winepress threshing wheat (Judges 6:11). The Midianites are harassing the people of Israel as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God (See, Judges 6:7-10). Gideon is not the most impressive possible leader. He is from a small tribe and the least member of his family (v. 15). Yet, he is the chosen of God so that through this weak man, God can show his power (v. 16). After testing God, and seeing proof of God’s power, Gideon agrees (vv. 19-22). To make a long story short Gideon cuts down the pagan altars, raises and army, and sets out to defeat the Midianites. He does so in an unbelievable way, winnowing his already inadequate army down to a size that has no chance of defeating the Midianites without the help of God (See, Judges 7). After his victory, Gideon led Israel for forty years, but eventually he grew old and died—once again without mentoring a leader (Judges 8:28-33). So, the people of Israel slipped back into worshiping false god’s and pretty soon Abimelech, his illegitimate son and a would be dictator, rose up and the people suffered again (see Judges 8:28-9:59).

Those of us who are inclined to wonder what in the world made the Jews act like this should perhaps take a look at the recent history of our own nation. We too have forgotten many of the principles that resulted in our freedom. We have forgotten how hard it is to earn freedom and how easy it is to lose it. We too have worshiped the false God’s of Personal Peace, Personal Pleasure and Affluence. [4] And, we too suffer the consequences. We too need to remember our past, repent of our present, and be restored.

When Everyone Does as They Please

At the end of Judges, the author pronounces his judgment on the period of the Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25 [NIV]). The very same phrase appears in Judges 17:6 and parts of the phrase in other sections of the book (See, Judges 18:1). In the end, the period of the Judges was a disaster for Israel. The dispersed tribes, largely disconnected and unified occasionally by charismatic leaders, could not defend itself against internal violence or external threats. Just as examples, a terrible rape and murder in Judges almost ends in the extermination of the tribe of Dan. Over and over again the Amorites, Ammonites, Midianites, and Philistines made war against Israel, causing untold suffering. The author of Judges blames the people themselves for the problem: they were not faithful to God, the degenerated morally and spiritually, and they suffered the consequences.

The term “Bedlam” applies to disorder, tumult, chaos, clamor, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium. It is sometimes used in connection with lunacy. The word “Bedlam” is a Middle English form of the Hebrew word, “Bethlehem,” which means “House of Bread”. The word got its current meaning because it the name “Bedlam” was given to an English hospital for the insane that had a terrible reputation. [5] I think this derivation has a point to make to all of us: When we forget the one born in Bethlehem who came to us to give us the Bread of Life in the form of the Wisdom, Love and Forgiveness of God, we degenerate into Bedlam. The current state of our society is a good example of this truth.

Message of the Judges

Is our situation hopeless? I don’t think so. The message of judges seems to be that, while we human beings have short memories and often degenerate into sin and foolishness, if we repent and ask for forgiveness, we will be restored. God will forgive us. This also seems to be the message of II Chronicles 7: 14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14 [NIV]). This need for humility, repentance and prayer was not just a need of the ancient Jews; it is our need as well.

Copyright, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which means “savior” in Hebrew.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Entering a New Era: Passing the Torch (September 30, 2012): 5

[3] See, Jacob M. Myers “Judges” in The Interpreter’s Bible vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1953): 688.

[4] Francis Schaeffer often spoke of the two values of our culture as being personal peace and affluence. See, “How Shall We Then Live” in The Collected Works of Francis Schaeffer Vol. 5 (Wheaton Ill, Crossway Books, 1982): 211.

[5] See, “Bedlam” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Online (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02387b.htm, October 11, 2012.

 

Putting It to Work

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Luke 10:1-2

 One of the most exciting things concerning the Christian life is the opportunities we are given to “be Jesus” in the life of other people. As important as the church is, as important as being part of a small group of disciples is, membership in the group is not all there is to the Christian life. Once we know, we need to share. We need to exercise our spiritual gifts and thereby share the wisdom and love of God with others.

Jesus formed the disciples as a community and enjoyed a wonderful, life transforming fellowship with them. Nevertheless, for the entire time that he was with them, he was also in ministry to others: healing the sick, teaching the multitudes, confronting sin, and showing people what the kingdom of God was really like. Then, he sent the disciples (and us) out to do the same. Mark records it his way: Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6:7-13). What Jesus was doing, they were now about to do. In other words, Jesus was empowering his disciples to do the very things that he was doing.

Expanding the Reign of God’s Love

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24). Later, in Chapter 15, he gives his command: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).  Finally, in John 20, after the resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples that, just as God sent him into the world to reveal the wisdom (Logos) and love (Agape) of God, so Jesus was now sending the disciples into the world to do the same: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21). Sending was always a part of Jesus’ plan for his disciples. It is also his plan for us.

The heart of Christian discipleship is simply this: to spread the love of God as we have seen it in Jesus Christ. This sharing of God’s unmerited forgiving and restoring grace, what Paul called the secret wisdom of God that the world calls foolishness is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We were not called merely to have private religious experiences of God’s love. We were not called merely to enjoy the life transforming nature of a Christian community. We were called also to go into the world and to share the Good News of God’s mercy, love and grace with others in word and deed.

Our Sending

This week, several times the Lord brought the importance of serving others to my attention. Robert Mulholland defined Christian spiritual formation as the process of becoming more like Christ for the sake of the world. A small group study Kathy and I attended focused on the four aspects of this: our life in Christ as

  1. A process
  2. Of being formed
  3. Into the Image of Christ
  4. For the sake of the world. [1]

Too often we think of our salvation as something God has done for us, and we stop there. It is true that God saves us because of his great love for us. But we are saved so that we can become more like Christ. Therefore, Paul can say things like we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”—i.e. Our salvation in Christ is a process that is worked out in some way over time. The “working out” is the process of becoming more like Christ. Not just like Christ on the outside (that is hypocrisy!), but like Christ inside and out. Like Christ in his relationship with the Father. Like Christ is our moral and spiritual being. Like Christ in the way we react to people and situations. Every serious Christian knows that this is a process that takes a long time—our entire lives and is complete only in heaven.

This process has a purpose. John begins with “For God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son” (John 3:16). John ends his gospel with, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus was sent into the world to proclaim and live out the Good News. We are sent for the same reason. God is still in the process of loving the world and saving the lost. His Spirit is present empowering people to turn from sin and selfishness to God. For the sake of the world, God has now sent his people, the church, the ecclesia, those called out of the world into God’s kingdom, into the world. He is sending you and me.

God created the human race in his image. The Bible reveals what we all know deep in our hearts—we have defaced that image in selfishness, self-centeredness, and sin. In Christ, however, God has provided way for that image of God to be restored. (II Corinthians 5:17-18) Those of us who were estranged from God have now been “reconciled” with God, brought back into a relationship with God through Christ. We in turn, in our everyday relationships with people, are called to continue our own journey into Christlikeness not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world God loves, a world God loved enough to send his Only Begotten Son to live, minister, and die for.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] M. Robert Mulhollland, Jr,  with Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation Expanded Version (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Press), 1993

An Independence Day Meditation: Media, “Alt-Media” and News Media Lost in Post-Modernism

 

 

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy. Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed (Proverbs 11:10-11 [NIV]).

A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory (Proverbs 24:5-6 [ESV]).

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above;
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America, my home, sweet home.
God bless America, my home, sweet home (Irving Berlin, 1918, rev. 1939)

This particular meditation is born of a deep grief for our country and where were are in our political life.

The most recent American elections revealed in startling ways the culture decline of the American media and American Political life  in almost all its manifestations.  Whether one looks at Mainline Media, Print Media, Network Media, Television Media, Internet Media, or Alt-Media (sometimes called “Alt Right Media” by the traditional media) the failures of the media as a whole to accurately and factually report stories was plainly evident. It was as evident on Fox News as CNN, on Yahoo as in the New York Times or New York Post. For whatever reason, generally the media felt it had an open season on one particular candidate. Specially, left and right, the media and candidates demonstrated a complete disdain for a reasonable and dignified public culture. Since the election, nothing has changed. [1]

What is the Media?

The term “media” comes from a Latin word “medi,” which means “middle.” This word forms the root of many English words. “Mediators” stand in the middle between parties to a dispute and help them resolve their difficulties. “Intermediaries” negotiate on behalf of parties who cannot see each other personally in a dispute. The “Media” are intermediaries of a sort. Citizens cannot be everywhere. Therefore, we need the “media” to mediate news for us. Because of the volume of events that may occur on any given day or given period of time, the public relies upon the media to sort through events, prioritize their importance, summarize events in a meaningful and truthful way, and convey the meaning of events to those of us who cannot be personally present to view and participate in events. When the media fails in this task, becomes prejudiced in the task, ceases to believe in democracy and in the power of ordinary people to interpret and act upon the facts, a disaster is in the making.

It goes without saying that the media have an important role in any vital democracy. Citizens rely upon the media to provide them with information without which voters and participants in public life cannot make informed decisions. The media is the medium through which most people, in and out of government, gain the information needed to be responsible citizens and public servants. Unfortunately, the voters have not been well served by the traditional media for some time—and the recent election and the first six months of the new administration were just one more indication of a deep problem.

An Outmoded World-View

Behind the decline of American media and American political culture  is a mindset, a way of looking at the world, an orientation in which words do not convey meanings. Instead words are simply bids for power. Having given up any notion that the voters and the public should be given the facts so as to judge wisely, the media and politicians are  left with using their constitutionally protected position to put into office the candidate/s that support their biases, left, right, or whatever.

This way of looking at the world has two aspects: First, a strictly post-modern (really, “hyper-modern”) view does not believe that there is a “public truth” out there that citizens are discovering over time as we elect candidates and evaluate their performance. There is just an ideology of the left or right that their respective proponents would like to enact into law, and whoever gets the votes can do as they please. There is no truth, no justice, just ideology and the naked search for power.

This a prejudice the practitioners of hyper-modern journalism share with politicians left and right— and increasingly with those who control and teach in our universities. This prejudice contributes to many of our greatest public failures. Just to give one current example, virtually no economist or healthcare expert thought that the Affordable Care Act would work. There were many obvious flaws in the proposal. Most members of the media largely ignored these flaws, pointed out by conservative thinkers and legislators, because of the need to achieve some kind of universal coverage. They favored a single payer solution. The proponents of the Affordable Care Act were willing to deceive and lie to the American people because of an ideological commitment divorced from reality. The coverage of the passage of the Affordable Care Act did not alert the average voter and citizen to the inherent dangers of the way the legislation was structured.

The failure by the media to fully and accurately cover this story resulted in the passage of a deeply flawed piece of legislation. The Democratic Party, which the media was trying to “help,” has paid the price in every successive election. The political disaster consumed the very party the majority of the media was trying to assist. In addition, the taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get more expensive and no better healthcare than before. Finally, confidence in our political institutions and processes have been injured.

Today, a conservative Congress is busy following the same mistake in the opposite direction. The loud calls to “Repeal Obamacare” are resulting in pressure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but not necessarily replace it with a piece of legislation that achieves the two basic objectives of the American people: control of costs to the average consumer together with as broad a scope of coverage as  possible.

I have used legislation concerning medical care as an example, but in a variety of areas (banking legislation comes to mind) the ideological predispositions of an essentially irrational political and media elite are driving legislation that will assure that problems that have occurred in the past will repeat themselves in the future. Reporting tends to speak from the prejudice of those reporting as opposed to a desire to seek the truth. In a variety of areas this is dangerous because the problems we face require new solutions not necessarily available to those trapped in historic ideological positions.

A loss of belief in truth cannot help but be followed by another, perhaps worse, phenomena. We have seen this phenomenon during the past election and in the past few weeks: If facts are not important than sensational, overblown, and highly emotional visual and other images are. If all that counts is power, then getting power over the voters’ prejudices is what matters. Unfortunately, the public interest is what is harmed if the media and politicians engage in such behavior.

The problem of loss of faith in truth is complicated by a focus on sensationalism. The politics of negative sensationalism prevents us from having a conversation about serious national problems. It is easy to win office by stating that the candidate you oppose is worse than the candidate you support. It is harder to prove that your candidate had good ideas and is capable of solving a social problem. When you combine a lack of respect for the truth with a focus on the sensational, you have a recipe for democratic disaster.

The Way of Wisdom in the Post-Modern World [2]

Wisdom literature certainly does not provide a simple road map for contemporary political activity. The culture of the Old Testament is far removed from contemporary Western democracy governing a nation made up of city-dwellers who are part of a complex industrial and post-industrial economy. Nevertheless, certain principles of wisdom are needed to provide a foundation for our contemporary government. Moral decay and injustice still erode the foundations of a society. Moral principles continue to be important for leaders. Leaders still need good character and a willingness to listen to good advice. Wise leaders are concerned about the integrity of the political system, and especially for the courts. Just as in the days of ancient Israel, it is easy for a government to pay attention to the needs of the wealthy and well-connected and hard, sometimes incredibly hard to listen to the cries of the poor.

The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi points out a paradoxical feature of modern society: it combines a cynical disregard for truth and for justice with kind fanatical devotion to certain moral ideals of an ideology, right or left. The Russian Communists and German Nazi’s were equally mad and equally inspired by an ideological moral fervor cut off from a deep moral ground in a history, religious faith, or tradition. The search for a just society, cut off from a deep transcendental notion of justice moves the practitioners of modern ideological politics into a fanaticism that permits acts of gross immorality in the search for a better or perfect society. [3]

What is needed is for Western democracies, most of which have some basic cultural history in the Judeo-Christian tradition to recover their connection with the moral tradition of the West in the conduct of its political affairs. Most importantly, the West must recover its faith in the reality of Justice and other intangible public values as real qualities which is progressively uncovered in the search for them. In his book Logic of Liberty, Polanyi puts the matter in this way:

The general foundations of coherence and freedom in society may be regarded as secure to the extent to which men uphold their belief in the reality of truth, justice, charity, and tolerance, and accept dedication to the service of these realities; while society may be expected to fall into servitude when men deny, explain away or simply disregard these realities and transcendent obligations.

We may be faced with the fact that only by resuming the great tradition which embodies faith in these realities can the continuance of the human race on earth, equipped with the powers of modern science be made both possible and desirable. [4]

If there is no such thing as truth and justice, if we are not constrained in our political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in our political lives with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters—and society has turned onto the road that inevitably leads to tyranny. This is the road we have recently been taking. It is a road the leads to death—the death of our society, our freedoms, our culture, our way of life.

If, however, a society believes in the reality of transcendent, moral and ethical realities of truth, justice, tolerance, charity and serve them, not one or the one we find convenient, but all of them, and if we believe that our society will eventually discern these realities and be guided by them, then the foundation of a free society can be maintained, even in the fact of conflict and uncertainty. This is the road to which we must return. It is a road that leads to life.

So much of the frenetic dishonesty of contemporary politics comes from an underlying assumption of the right and left that there nothing involved but the contention of special interest groups for advantage. In the absence of faith in the reality of moral constraints on the political process and upon what special interest groups may seek as well as upon what means may be used to seek them, a free and just society cannot endure.

If, however, we come to believe in something called the “Public Interest” as an invisible reality which can and will be disclosed to us as we truly seek the invisible but progressively attainable reality of a more just order for society, then (and only then) can a free society be maintained in the face of the trials and tests of history. In such a society, the voice of religious leaders can and should be heard in the public arena, for Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18 [ESV]).

Modern advocates of a purely secular state may immediately suspect that any attempt to subject government to religious opinions and moral rules involves an attempt to set up a theocracy or “moralocracy”. An attempt by religious or moral leaders to acquire political power to advance a religious or moral agenda would be contrary to the vision of Polanyi and others. A society in which moral values guide leaders is a society in which leaders have been trained in wisdom and in the principles of moral leadership and instinctively bring them to bear upon the problems of the day. The role of morality and religion is to create a kind of character in leaders, not to mandate a particular moral position enforced by law.

Conclusion

During these past weeks, actors, journalists, politicians, and others have openly suggested the assassination of a sitting President. The facts of certain decisions have largely been overlooked in favor of sensationalist, often violent, speeches and demonstrations. Exactly what these people think they will gain is not clear, but their strategy is clear: Cause chaos and maybe we will come out on top. This strategy is as old as the Communist Revolution in Russia. The problem with the strategy is the inevitable outcome: When violent revolutions occur, a society gets a Hitler, Lenin, Pot Pol, or Stalin not a Harvard Law Professor or an environmental activist. When violence, physical or political, is the way to power, you get violent leaders. Always. Every time. No exceptions.

The American people, the press, the Congress, and the Administration need to take a pause for reflection. The current administration was elected because the voters wanted a change in what the media is calling a more populist direction—what I interpret to mean a more personal, local, and organic direction for government. These changes are now occurring. Perhaps the administration might want to think about the pace and direction of change. Mistakes will be made and they will need to be corrected. Reasoned analysis and critique might avoid unnecessary errors.

On the other hand, a President needs a Cabinet, reasonable and helpful, if sometimes critical, support from Congress for the initiatives he was elected to take, and a “loyal opposition” to hold him accountable so that another Obamacare-like fiascos do not occur. The media needs to report as accurately as they can the facts surrounding the initiatives. Everyone needs to be held accountable to the democratic process. And, in humility, we need to give a new government a chance.

For this to work, in fact for democracy to work, there must be something more important and more fundamental than victory for our side in the next election. There must be shared values and a shared belief that the democratic process works, not always immediately, but over time. There must be a shared commitment to the search beyond ideology and prejudice for the best and most reasonable solutions to our national problems. There must be a shared belief in truth, in justice, in fairness, and in the capacity of our nation to accomplish the creation of a fair and just society for all people. Without that shared commitment, the future is dark. With such a commitment, whatever darkness may periodically erupt, there is always the hope for a better future for all Americans.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The following quote pretty much says it all: “The unhinged reaction of the mainstream media, which Mr. Trump correctly describes as corrupt and dishonest, only confirms their attempt to disguise rank political partisanship behind a phony First Amendment curtain. The fact that so many of the so-called journalists who were working behind the scenes for Hillary Clinton and writing false stories about Mr. Trump and the election are still on the job is inexcusable (when, for example, is CNBC going to fire John Harwood?). I certainly do not agree with everything Mr. Trump says or does (though I agree with much of it), but at least he speaks his mind and backs it up with action. Our country is now run by generals and businessmen, not by the types of academics and politicians who made a shambles of foreign and domestic policy over the last two decades. Before we judge Mr. Trump too harshly, we should give him a chance to implement the policies that he was elected to implement. The fact that a biased liberal medi a and half the country doesn’t like him or his policies is irrelevant. By the time Mr. Trump’s first term is over, the media is going to be a shadow of its former self if it doesn’t start telling the truth and behaving like the Founders envisioned, not like a bunch of political operatives.” Michael Lewitt, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” (Excerpted from The Credit Strategist (February 1, 2017), reprinted in John Mauldin Economics, Outside the Box “More on Complexity Economics” (downloaded February 3, 2017). I do want to point out that the President’s response to his critics in the media has sometimes been short-sighted and fed the dysfunction of our political system.

[2] This part of the essay is based upon a part of a chapter in my book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[3] See, Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946). This little book should be required reading in every college in America. It is an eloquent defense of academic and religious freedom by a scientist/philosopher horrified by what the politicalization of science did to Russian science.

[4] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951):\, 57. I am obligated to Polanyi for the argument as well as the quotation.

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.