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Go Share My Life

 

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.(John 20:21)

Imagine the scene when Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus and the disciples had been together for three or so years. During that time, the disciples formed the belief, hope and expectation that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of Israel. The disciples gave up everything and followed him, expecting they would be rewarded when Jesus came to his throne (Mark 10:35-36). Then came his betrayal, arrest, death, and burial. Their hopes and dreams were shattered. Amazingly, three days after his death and burial, and for weeks thereafter, Jesus appeared to them— proving he was alive! Jesus had conquered betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, and the grave.

Now, the disciples knew Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David. They believed Jesus would restore the kingdom of David, just as God promised. (Acts 1:8). Once again, Jesus surprised them: He was not going to directly bring in the kingdom by his own physical presence and power. Instead, Jesus was going to bring his kingdom spiritually through his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. He put this new understanding in the form of a commandment or commission: [1]

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 28:18-20).

In one of my former congregations, there was a retired pastor who grew up on a farm. He was and is a southern farm boy. He has been both a pastor and a missionary. When he translates the Great Commission, he puts it something like this:

As y’all are going wherever you go, be sure and share the Good News with others and make them disciples of mine. As you do this, baptize those who come to believe. But, don’t stop there. Be sure you teach them all about me and to live the way I have taught you to live. Along the way, don’t be scared. I will be with you all the time, everywhere you go. [2]

You actually have to know a little Greek to understand that Robert accurately captured the essence of what Jesus is saying. In Greek, the word “Go” is a participle. It can mean, “Go!” (the imperative form), but it also connotes “As you are going” (the progressive form). Christians are to make disciples (the command) as we go (throughout the progress of our lives).

Because of the centrality of the Great Commission, it is important right to get firmly in mind its central principles that should guide each and every Christian. The specific task Jesus gave the first disciples and gives to us cannot be emphasized too often:

  • Go: Coming to church is not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about going into the world. In fact, we all live and go somewhere every day, and where we are where we go are our mission fields.
  • Share the Good News: Christians are not called to simply receive teaching. Christians are called to share Christ and the love of God with everyone we meet, not just with people we like or are attracted to. We should share verbally but also actively by the Christ-like quality of our lives.
  • Make Disciples: Once we have shared our faith and others have accepted Christ, Christians are called to patiently form people into communities of faith in which they are transformed. We are not called to make people church members; we are called to make disciples. [3]
  • Live in the Power of the Spirit: We do not need to fear. God is and will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ as we go about the business of sharing God’s love and making disciples. [4]

Making Disciples is More than Words

As we go, Jesus does not say that we should, “Just get people to say they believe in me.” He says “make disciples,” and “teach them to obey.” Too often, evangelism programs stop at conversion. This is not what Jesus asked us to do. He asked us to make disciples who obey his words and teachings and seek to emulate his life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants his disciples to be about the business of making more and more Spirit-filled disciples, who live out in their day-to-day lives what they believe in their hearts in such a life transforming way that other disciples are made along the way.

Going While Unqualified

By the time that Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, the disciples were very aware that they were unqualified. During their time with Jesus, they had constantly misunderstood him. They had not understood that he was not going to be a political and military messiah. They had not understood that the Good News he proclaimed was going to be for everyone. In the end, they all deserted him, denied him, and betrayed him. As individuals and as a group, they lacked the character and ability to undertake a world-wide mission.  They were not administrators, managers, linguists, theologians, or cross-cultural experts. They had neither the education nor the experience to undertake the mission. They were. not particularly intelligent, gifted, or capable. Nevertheless, Jesus sent them.

Most of us are in the same boat. We don’t feel qualified to take the good news to the ends of the earth. Jesus must have meant to send someone else! However, he did not. He meant to send the disciples, and he means to send us. If we lack the capacity to do what Jesus calls us to do, we are in good company. That has been true since the beginning. If we are afraid, not wholly faithful, wobbly in our trust in God, we are no different than the original disciples. We need to hang on to the understanding that God will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit if we will only go and share.

Taking Time to Make Disciples

One of my favorite New Testament stories is the story of the sending of the Twelve on their first mission trip (Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-6). After the Twelve had been with Jesus for a time, Jesus sent them out to practice doing the things they had seen him do. Mark describes it like this:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So, they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 7:7-13).

There is a great deal to learn from this short story. First, Jesus was a master disciple-maker and knew that the disciples would not become the sent apostles he needed just by listening to what he said and watching his deeds of power. He did not want them to be just learners, but doers as well. He knew that someday they would be on their own, and they needed to get ready for that day. Therefore, he sent them out on practice missions. He did not send them out alone, because he knew that they would need mutual support along the way.  Therefore, he sent them two-by-two.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn to rely upon God and not upon human beings, even him. Therefore, he carefully told them not to take along many items that almost anyone would consider necessary. What person leaves on a trip without a suitcase, their wallet, a few credit cards, and the like?  No one. Jesus knew this, but also understood that the disciples needed to learn to rely on the Spirit of God. He also warned them not to waste time going from place to place, but to stay for enough time to actually disciple people. [5] The disciples went as they were told, and later on we learn that followers of Jesus were excited and energized by what happened. [6]

Making disciples is not a quick, easy, or painless process. It takes time, effort, and patience.  We must be willing to teach, mentor and love each new disciple for a period of time as they mature in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Some people adapt easily to the new life in Christ, others take a long time. Some years ago, Kathy and I were privileged to be a part of a young woman coming to Christ. This particular person did not grow up in a particularly good home. Her parents were divorced. Her mother remarried, and her father worked in a profession where he traveled a lot, and he lived in a distant city. When she gave herself to Christ, she was in an unhealthy relationship. Today, that woman is an on-fire of disciple and disciple-maker—but believe me there were ups and downs along the way! On one notable occasion, our friend failed to tell us about a financial failure on her part. She was evicted. When she came to see me, I was as hard on this “daughter in Christ” as I would have been on one of my children!  That particular event was a turning point for this person, and since that time she has been a very careful Christian and mother.

Going as Salt and Light

My wife, Kathy, and I created a discipleship technique out of which a book grew, “Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship.”  [7]  The title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 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 (Matthew 5:13-14).

At some point, many of us have been told by doctors to cut down on our salt intake. In fact, salt is necessary for human life. It is also a seasoning and preservative. Animals and humans need salt to live, and as a seasoning it preserves and heightens the enjoyment of food.  When Jesus says we are to be the salt of the earth, he is reminding his disciples (and us) that they (and we) are to share his self-giving, life-transforming love, the most important thing in the universe, with others. His love is what makes life possible, joyful, and meaningful. Without his love, life is nothing but struggle. We see the impact of life as nothing but struggle in our own culture. Living a life of ceaseless struggle is dehumanizing.

John speaks of Jesus as the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). James speaks of God as the “Father of Lights” (James 1:17). John says that “God is Light”—a light in whom there is no darkness (1 John 15). Jesus says told his disciples that they were “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christians are to walk in the light of God, living wisely and with deep love for others. Paul says that when we do this, “we shine like stars” (Philippians 2:15).  We are to be like a lamp on a table shining the light of Christ into the room in which it is placed.

The description of God as light, of Jesus as the light, and of Christians as the living as light, reminds us that we are to embody the wisdom and love of God, as well as personally experience the love of God. It is not enough for us to privately know about Jesus.  It is not enough for us to just tell others about Jesus. In fact, if we do this without growing in Christ ourselves, we become hypocrites and dishonor God. To be a disciple is to shine like Jesus, live in the light of God’s presence, be transformed by that light, and share that light with others. In this way, everything we say and do will point others towards Christ and help them experience the wisdom and love of God.

When I was a new Christian, a partner in the firm in which I worked gave me an urgent task. The task required a paralegal to assist. As we went over the assignment, the paralegal looked over the desk and said, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” She could tell by our conversation that I was a Christian, even though the conversation was about filing a document at a particular time in a particular place in Texas. After the paralegal spoke to me, we shared our common faith in Christ for a few moments before going on with the task at hand. We became friends and partners in the Gospel for an interlude.

The “going” part of discipleship is not just about going out and sharing Christ in words. It is about living the life of Christ in our day-to-day lives in such a way that others take notice, even if we say nothing at all. This does not mean we say nothing at all. In fact, we will say something. But, the words we speak flow naturally from the people we have become in Christ. When Christians are salt and light to those they meet, people take notice, whatever words are spoken.

Any pastor who is ever sat at the bedside of a dying person knows at the ministry of presence is one of the most important ministries disciple-makers have. Some years ago, the father-in-law of one of my elders was in the hospital. I didn’t know it, but he was close to death. One Saturday morning I went to my normal prayer group. On my way home, I decided to go visit this person. My job at the time did not involve a lot of visitation. Nevertheless, I went. When I got to the room, the elder’s wife was sitting with her father, who was very weak. I sat with her for a time, and then said a prayer. Later that day, he died. My off-the-cuff visit that day meant a lot to the people involved. Before this incident, I was not close to the elder in question. I knew almost nothing about his family. He was not a particularly important supporter of mine. After that event, we were much closer. He’s become one of the most important leaders in one of my former churches.  That morning, I said almost nothing. It was presence that mattered. The presence of Christians in the life of those we disciple is one of the most important qualities a good disciple-maker must have. To be a disciple-maker to be involved in the lives of people in a personal way, just as Jesus was involved with his disciples.

Going in Relationship

For their first missionary experience, Jesus sent the disciples out in groups. Our going should also involve going in relationship with others, those we minister with and those we minister to. God desires a personal relationship with us. God also wants us to develop communal relationship through the church, the people of God, those people God has called to be his special witnessing people to the world. The Christian community is the place where people come to faith, learn, grow, and put their faith into practice. The church (the community of those who have been called out) is where Christians experience and share a bit of the kingdom of God on earth.  It is no surprise, therefore, that God wants us to reach out and share what we have experienced in Jesus Christ in community with other people.

Discipleship as a Triangular Relationship

Discipleship involves a “triangular relationship.” The essence of going in discipleship is a life-changing relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. This relationship grows in a process of maturity in faith and life. We have a vertical relationship with the Triune God, who is the foundation of our Christian life. As we trust God, we enter the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 1 John 1:3). This vertical relationship with God changes our inner being and makes us new people. (2 Cor. 5:17). Just as God exists in a community, we become a part of the community of God and walk with the Triune God and with other believers. Gradually, we become more like Christ, who is the very image of God (Col. 1:5). Finally, our inner transformation grounded in our vertical relationship with God, and our healed horizontal relationships with others, empowers us to reach out to others just as someone reached out to us (I Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:4).

The life of a disciple is built around all three points in the triangle: We believe in and trust Christ and become passionately in love with God, willing to follow Christ and obey God’s commands. To do this, we need to be discipled in relationship with other Christ-followers, become part of a local fellowship of Christians, and learn to live as God intended his children to live. Finally, as we grow, we reach out into our families, communities, work places, schools, etc. with the love of God so that others may experience God’s wisdom and love. [8] Each of these three movements of faith are important. Each require that we grow in relationship with God and other people. Each require that we grow into the likeness of Christ with the same kind of love for others Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Discipleship in an Entangled World

The communal, relational aspect of sharing the Gospel is hard for contemporary people to fully understand and appreciate. We are accustomed to the radical individualism of our culture, and so find it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the necessity of relationships in order to grow in Christ. If there is any important insight of science that should change our way of looking at the world, it is the insight that we live in what John Polkinghorne calls, “An Entangled World”. [9] We live in a world characterized by a deep and fundamental relationality. Our habitual way of looking at the world as individual entities exercising force upon one another masks a deeper reality—that of a world of beautiful and elegant relationality, what I sometimes call “Deep Love” in religious terms. [10] The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the deep, self-giving love characteristic of God, implies that believers should be in deep, self-giving relationships with God and one another if we are to achieve the wholeness we desire. We cannot be Christians alone, because that is not the way God lives or wants us to live. It is not the way we were made. We were meant for community. We need to live “entangled” in the lives of others.

The New Testament reveals the communal aspect of mission. The most famous apostle, and the one about whom we know the most, Paul, rarely traveled alone. He ministered in community. [11] He went on missionary journeys with Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others. At the end of his life, Peter seems to have been in Rome with John Mark (1 Peter 5:13). Paul and John Mark ministered together at the beginning and end of Paul’s ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Timothy 4:11).

The “going” of God’s people is a going in community. In the modern world, perhaps because of our emphasis on individualism, we idolize those who go alone, or seem to go alone in mission. We celebrate Billy Graham, but forget George Beverly Shay, Cliff Barrows, and the hundreds of others who ministered with him over the years. We celebrate Mother Teresa, but forget the members of her order. We celebrate famous pastors, and forget the staff members who make their ministries possible. Everyone ministers in community, whether they (or we) know it or not.

The call to go is not a call to go alone. It is a call for the community though its members to go. [12] A few go as individuals, but most will go as a group with support and with the kind of courage that only a group can muster. The same is true of us today. While a few of us may be called to solitary mission, most of us will go as a part of a team.

The Lost Art of Going

When I began to write this book, I reread the Cost of Discipleship after many years.  I took a journey into the bibliography to look for references on the Great Commission. There were none. The only reference in my edition to Matthew 28 related to the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers, and was related to the chapter on baptism. [13] In the late 1930’s, writing as a German, a citizen of the home place of the Reformation and the center of Christian Europe, Bonhoeffer could not fully see the need for the church as a community to recommit itself to evangelism and disciple-making. This is a legacy of the fact that, when the Reformation occurred, Germany, and all of Europe, were already Christianized. The great age of disciple-making, extending for hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was over. Europe might not have been a good example of Christianity, but it was nominally Christian. Although by the end of his life, when he was writing to his family and friends from prison, Bonhoeffer could see that Christianity in Germany and Europe was in a crisis, at the time of Cost of Discipleship, he could not. [14]

In a similar way, many Christians in the United States today fail to see that we are not only in a postmodern era, we are in a new apostolic era. The Christian faith cannot live on its prior successes. Instead, Christians must learn again to reach out and share the Good News Christ has entrusted to us. We must recover the lost art of going and sharing the Gospel, or the crisis of discipleship we face will continue and even get worse.

Going and making disciples is not the responsibility of a few, but of all of us. Just as not everyone who traveled with Paul was a great speaker, not all of us are called to be great oral evangelists. Each of is, however, called to share our faith as we can in the ways we are gifted to do so. This does not exempt us from verbally sharing our faith and understanding how to do it. It simply means that each one of us will share as they are called and gifted to do so. We are also called to invest our livers in the lives of others, so that people not only believe but become well-taught and mentored disciples of Christ. The gospel without love is powerless, and love without the gospel is meaningless.

I have been a Christian for the better part of half a century. I’ve been a pastor of evangelical congregations for a quarter of a century. It was only recently that I fully recognized that a good deal of what I have taught, and accomplished as a pastor is distant from what God intends for his church. There is nothing wrong with great worship, visitation programs, Sunday School, children’s programs, youth groups, good Bible teaching, men’s and women’s ministry, community outreach, and the like. In fact, God desires for his church to do all these things. However, if we do these things without making and empowering disciples, we fall short of what God desires for us and for the world—to go make disciples.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Great Commission occurs in some form in each of the Gospel and in Acts. See, Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:7-8. In each case, there is a sending to witness to Christ and a promise of the presence of the Spirit as the disciples undertake to do what they have been asked to do.

[2] This quote is from Rev. Robert Crumpton who was one of the pastors of Advent Presbyterian Church, a former pastor of the Arlington Presbyterian Church, which Advent helped to revitalize, and a missionary to Ghana with his wife Nancy. During my years at Advent, Bob was the visitation pastor who shared God’s love with every visitor to Advent for over fifteen years after his “retirement.” The translation is not unique, and I have seen it other places.

[3] I have outlined the importance of living out the teachings of Christ and the Bible in much greater detail in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR, 2014) and in Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014).

[4] See, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution (Monument, CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). This book is the single most important source for learning about T4T, which is one of the most important and powerful of the disciple-making movements in the world today.

[5] This particular aspect of this story should make us careful about event and media-centered ministries. Jesus did not want the disciples to into a place, preach the gospel, do a few miracles, and leave. Instead, he wanted them to stay in one place for a significant amount of time. Paul traveled a lot, but also spent significant time in specific cities like Ephesus. This indicates that serious disciple-makers should be grounded in a place and a community.

[6] See, Luke 10:17, which applies to yet another sending event. The various gospel narratives indicate that his sending before the ultimate sending was a part of Jesus’ strategy. See, F.W. Beare, “The Mission of the Disciples and the Mission Charge: Matthew 10 and Parallels,” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 89, No. 1 (March 1970), 1-13.

[7] G. Christopher with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[8] See, Mike Breen & the 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did(Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM Resources, 2011). Many churches and congregations use this triangle approach.

[9] John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[10] See, Centered Living/ Centered Leading, at 165. In Centered Living, Centered Leading, I use the term Deep Love to describe God’s uncreated, self-giving love.

[11] The passages in which one can see that Paul ministered in community are too numerous to mention. The missionary journeys in Acts reflect Paul traveling with others. Often, the final portion of his letters reflect personal greetings to various individual persons important to his ministry. At the very end of his ministry, he asks Timothy to be with him (II Timothy 4:21). There is nothing in the life and ministry of the great missionary apostle to indicate that he ministered other than in community most of the time.

[12] As is often the case in interpreting the New Testament, it is important to recall that the Great Commission is in the plural. While Jesus is speaking to each disciple individually, he is also speaking to them as a group.

[13] See Cost of Discipleship, at 256.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

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5. Discipleship as a Personal Relationship

Many people (myself included) have difficulty visualizing what a personal relationship with God might be like. We understand human personal relationships, but we can’t ask God out on a date, go on a hunting trip, see a movie with us, or play a game of pickup basketball. God is not like Jesus in his incarnation. The first disciples could see, touch and physically spend time with Jesus. We cannot physically follow the human Jesus of Nazareth around in order to get to know what God is like. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask the question, “How can we have a personal relationship with someone we cannot see and who is infinitely different from us?”

Jesus believed in life-transforming relationships. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through him into a personal relationship with relational, Triune God. In Jesus, God allowed us to see what his “Being in Love” looks like in a concrete human life. He asked his disciples to “follow him,” which meant spending their lives with him for three years so that they could see and experience that love. In our life of discipleship, we too must learn to “follow God around” as we grow in Christ.

Loving a Personal God who Loves Us

The distinctive characteristic of Christian faith is belief in a personal God. Christians believe that the one God exists in three persons bound together in a relationship of self-giving love. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in an eternal mutual relationship of love. This insight is interesting and important because it is the foundation of our belief that God is a person and desires to have a personal relationship with the human race.

As the early church worshiped, they prayed to and worshiped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest church liturgies reflect this personal, Trinitarian pattern of worship. The church worshiped, prayed to, and treated as holy all three persons of the Trinity. As the first Christians heard, wrote, and read about the experience of the disciples (now apostles) with Jesus, they understood that the God of Israel, whom Jesus called, “Father,” had revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed Messiah, who was the “Son of God” and the “Word of God” in human flesh. Finally, the church saw that God the Father and Son were present in the life of believers by the Holy Spirit. The names “Father” and “Son,” and names like “Spirit of Christ,” Spirit of the Father,” etc. indicated that the persons of the Godhead were personal beings, not merely forces. [1]

Early Christians worshiped each person in the Trinity as God. This was a major barrier to Jewish evangelism—and it can be a barrier to people today. To a Jew, only God could be worshiped, and God is One. The earliest statement of faith of Israel was, “Hear O Israel, the Lord, your God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The question was raised, “If God is one God, how then can we account for Christ and for the Holy Spirit? This caused a long period of spiritual and intellectual reflection, as well theological debate, concerning how the Trinity can be explained. In the end, the church felt that, while there is only one God whom we worship as God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, this God exists in three persons, the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”

There are many reasons why this is important. If God is love (I John 4:8), then God in some way has to be person. Inanimate objects, powers, and ideas do not love. Only persons love. In addition, for love to exist, it must be shared. For there to be love, there must be someone (a person) to love and an act of love by someone else (a person). Therefore, it seemed logical to the early church that a God of Love is characterized by both unity (One God) and diversity (Three Persons) bound together in a relationship of divine, self-giving love—the love Christ revealed on the Cross.

If God is not a person, then we cannot expect to relate to God personally. If God is only a force or a principle, then we cannot have a personal relationship with God. We cannot expect God to love us personally as individuals. At best, we can submit to his power. [2] If God is a person, there can be a personal relationship between us and God. God can so love us that he would even give himself for our salvation.

On the other hand, if God is a person, we can “Love the Lord with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds, and all of our strength” (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) and expect that love to be reciprocal. If God is a person constituted by love then the proper way to be in a relationship with that God is to reflect God’s character by responding to God’s love by loving God and God’s creation in an earthy approximation to the love that God is. Because God is a person, Christianity is focused on personal love between persons and God, creation, and other people.

The idea that God must be loved was not new in Jesus’ day. In the Old Testament Israel was to love the Lord with all of its heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6:4-5). This love is not just to be shown to God, but to the world as well (Lev. 19:18). In the Old Testament, God often speaks of his love of Israel. For example, in Hosea God compares his feelings towards Israel as those of a spouse who has been betrayed (Hosea 3:1). The picture of God’s love in Hosea is especially important because it reveals a personal God who suffers, is humiliated, and yet will not abandon his beloved, however far away the beloved may wander. This love is the same love that caused God to provide in Christ a way for all of us to return to a living, holy relationship with the Triune God.

Persons and Personal Relationships

In our individualistic culture, we think we know what makes a person, and we celebrate individual personhood, perhaps to excess. Interestingly, however, the modern world actually has a drastically truncated and inadequate idea of personhood. We think of a person as an individual, a solitary, discrete body with a mind and reasoning powers. This person is bound to other persons solely by physical forces. Even love is often regarded simply a complex bio-psychological phenomenon, a biologically-based force acting between two persons. We think that love, care, friendship, and other relationships are reduceable to individuals and biochemical relationships between them. When we think this way, people become like living billiard balls—discrete objects careening around and occasionally making contact with other similar billiard balls.

Christians, like much of modern science, believe that this way of thinking is profoundly limited and mistaken. Persons are complex, relational beings with minds, bodies, psyche’s and spirits. A person emerges from and is constituted by the various relationships of life, physical, mental, emotional, and social. This last part is especially important: We would not be who we are without the social relationships we experience from the moment we are conceived. This is one reason why the church, a social institution, is so important to growing in Christ.

If modern physics is correct, our bodies are more than material particles bound together by forces. The subatomic “particles” that make up the deepest reality we know are not material. Rather, they are waves of certain basic fields that make up the entire universe. What we call “basic particles” are not material particles in the classic understanding of those terms, but “quantized ripples” in waves in a field that stretches throughout the entire universe. [3] These quantized ripples seem to be related to one another in such a fashion that it can be said that everything in the universe is related to everything else. Such a universe is characterized by both a deep relationality as well as by independent reality. In such a universe, it should not surprise us that people are deeply and importantly relational.

When we are conceived, we are far from being an independent reality unconnected from the rest of the world. Instead, we are composed of the DNA of our parents, unique, but dependent upon their genetic history. During the period of our gestation, we are connected to our mothers in the most intimate possible way, enclosed within her body, dependent upon her for our being, sustenance, and life. When we are born, we are born into a family, not just a biological unit, but a social entity with its own unique characteristics. This family cares for us and provides for us for a long time. We are dependent upon our parents, and who we are and what we become are deeply dependent upon the quality of that relationship. Each and every relationship we have from that time forward, positive or negative, plays a role in who we become and what kind of person we are. As time goes by, we enter into relationships with hosts of other people and social groups, each of whom profoundly contributes to who we become, the person we are. Every pastor has seen the terrible done to a person when parents and others fail to provide the love, care, respect, and other emotional and physical needs that are needed in the early stages of life. Such behavior literally deprives a child of the fullness of human love God intended for that child to experience.

We are also born into a community and a culture, with its unique patterns of life and ways of understanding the world. This culture forms in a deep way who we are as a person. In addition, the cultures we experience and become a part of during our lives, profoundly impact who we are as persons. Anyone who has traveled has experienced the sense that people in other parts of our country and the world live differently and often see things differently than does our culture and the people with whom we are the most familiar. I have had the opportunity to travel a good deal, and sometimes on more than one occasion to the same places. I always recognize that, for example, while I love Scotland and my European heritage, I am an American, not European or Scottish. This is true of everyplace one goes. Travel both broadens us and shows us the uniqueness of our place. Relationships make us bigger people than we would otherwise be.

Throughout all our relationships and experiences, there develops the unique person that comes to a relationship with creation and other people, and with God. As time goes by, each person becomes just that a person—a unique individual. This unique individual has his or her unique physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being, different than anyone else. Nevertheless, we remain connected to and profoundly impacted by those with whom we have relationships. It is this unique individual that is called into a transforming relationship with God. When we enter into this relationship, the relationship changes us, just as every relationship of life changes us, except this one is with the Lord God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. We can expect that such a relationship will change us more profoundly than any other relationship we have.

Growing a Relationship with God

If God is personal and wants a personal relationship with us, then we have to ask the question, “How can we establish and maintain such a relationship?” Although it may seem like an unanswerable question, the beginning steps are pretty clear.

  • First, we have to believe that there is a God who wants a relationship with us. In other words, there must be faith. I have to believe that such a relationship is possible and desirable.
  • Second, we have to commit myself in trust to developing that relationship. If we have faith, then we have a relationship with God. It may be a new relationship. It may be an immature relationship. But, there is a relationship.

Our relationship with God is like any human relationship. If this new relationship is going to grow and mature, we must spend time working on it, just as we work on relationships with a friends, spouses, children, or co-workers. We have to communicate. This is where prayer comes in. As we trust God and move out in faith, God’s love is increasingly revealed and that love grows, even in hard times, just as a good marriage grows in good times and bad times. If we are to grow in a relationship with God, we must spend time with God in silence, in conversation, in sharing, in meditation, in growing closer to God.

When my wife and I were dating, as busy as I was as a young professional, I made time to be with her because I loved her and wanted to be with her. We literally could not spend too much time together (at least I did not think so). Our relationship grew. Once we were married, our relationship still grew, but the pressure of business, family, church, and activities strained our relationship. It went through difficult times. We did not communicate as often or as well. Our relationship suffered. Today, when we are alone in the car, we are often silent. Nevertheless, our relationship is still changing and growing. Our relationship with God is no different. It takes time, and it has its ups and downs.

Grace and its Emissaries.

Christians believe in grace. Grace is God’s love reaching out to us to form a relationship with us. Christians believe that God is always reaching out in love to relate to human beings. Always. God’s love is in fact reaching out to us, long before we can or think about reaching out to God. God’s love is reaching out to us at times when we do not sense the presence of God and think of God as absent. As Paul reminds us, “In him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Of course, if we are to recognize that the invisible God is reaching out to us, most of the time it will take another person who already has a relationship with us to tell us about that God and introduce him to us. [4] I have a friend, now dead, who became a pastor a long time ago, when it was thought that pastors ought to be married. He went to seminary, but never really met the right person. One day, he met a young widow whose husband had died very young. He was introduced to her by a friend. Without that friend, my friend might never have met his wife of over fifty years. Christians are friends who introduce their friends to a person that will meet their deepest needs for love, forever. We need to think of ourselves as like my friend’s buddy who introduced him to the woman who would be his wife. We are not imposing on people when we share God’s love with them. We are introducing them to the best lover they will ever have.

Deepening our Relationship

Most of the time when we form a relationship with another person, we decide to spend time with them. Prayer, Bible study, worship, and the like are the spiritual equivalent to spending time with and getting to know a human person. If we are to know what God is like and how to grow our relationship with God, we have to study our Bibles, Christian literature, and the stories of others who have developed a relationship with God. We pray and spend time with God. God is a person. We learn to relate to the God of as a person by reaching out to others in acts of love and mercy.

Finally, if our relationship with God is to grow and mature, we need to spend time with people who are already in a relationship with God, including time with people who have been in that relationship longer and more deeply than we have. We need to be a part of the Christian community, and have a relationship with another person or persons who are themselves growing in a relationship with God.

A Different Kind of Relationship

Naturally, there will be differences between our relationship with God and our relationships with human beings. We will never see God. Most of the time, he will speak to us in silence. We will never fully comprehend the One who is the all-wise, all knowing, all powerful creator and sustainer of all that is. There will always be mystery and unresolved questions. Sometimes God will seem to be silent or absent, as if he has deserted us. We will never control the terms of our relationship with God. We will never come to the end of our relationship with an infinite being. But, we will grow in our relationship with God.

Mother Teresa once led a retreat for a group of married women, who complained about the difficulties of marriage. Apparently, one participant indicated that it would be hard for Mother Teresa to understand the difficulties of being married because she was a celibate and unmarried. Mother Teresa replied that she was married to Christ, who could be a very difficult husband indeed! Like Mother Teresa, we will not always find our relationship with God easy, simple, or without its sacrifices and sufferings. [5]

This is the situation in which Christians find ourselves. The life of faith is a life of relationship with a being (indeed the source of all being) we cannot hope to understand and who, from time to time, may place what we think are impossible demands upon us! Most of us who have been married any length of time admit to not fully understanding our spouses and believing that he or she sometimes makes impossible demands upon us! Married couples all know that even the best marriages are not always easy.

Our relationship with God will be no different. We will struggle to maintain the relationship, and we may often wonder what God is up to in our lives. Nevertheless, as the years go by, we grow and the relationship grows. Its growth is not immediate, constant, or without ups and downs, defeats and disappointments. After all, on our side it is a human relationship subject to the problems with all human relationships.

The Transforming Moment

The life of the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of how God can come into a human life in order to transform and heal it. [6] Paul was not, as we know, seeking Christ. In fact, he was a persecutor of Christ and of Christians. Acts tell us that he “held the cloaks” of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58), After that event, Paul violently persecuted the early Christians (Acts 8:1-3).

Having received authority from the Sanhedrin to persecute the church in Damascus, he was met by the risen Christ on the road outside of the city. Christ revealed himself to Paul, brought him into a personal relationship with himself, commissioned Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, and ordered him to go into the city and await his recovery from blindness (Acts 26:12-17).

Paul went into the city, and was brought into the fellowship of the church in Damascus by Ananias, whose efforts allowed Paul to begin his Christian pilgrimage (Acts 10:7). Paul immediately demonstrated his changed life by his powerful defense of Christian faith, a defense he continued for the remainder of his life (Acts 9:19-20).

As the example of Paul demonstrates, because God is a person and we are persons, there exists for each human being the potential for a life-transforming relationship with God, a transformation based upon hearing the Gospel with our intellect, accepting Christ with our hearts, and receiving from God the transformation of our being.

I will close this essay with one final example. Many years ago, my wife and I met a young woman who was damaged by her first husband. She had become closed to relationships with men, and was deeply wounded, fearful, and unhappy. Eventually, she remarried. Her new husband was not a Christian. When they had children, the husband decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Eventually, he accepted Christ. Later, our friend came to Christ as a result of her husband’s efforts.

In my former occupation, I used to see this woman from time to time in the tunnels beneath the city of Houston. The next time I saw this young lady after her conversion, instead of seeing her unconsciously recoil and move away, she broke out into a great smile and came over to greet me. This woman’s relationship with Christ continues to this day. Even to today, I have never seen a person so transformed and healed because of a new relationship with God in Christ. This is the power of a transforming, personal relationship with God.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Spirit is referred to using many different names in the New Testament, including the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Comforter. In all cases, it is a personal reference.

[2] This is not an essay on apologetics, but it is just at this point that Islam and Christianity diverge. For Islam, God is a monad, a singularity of power to whom believers submit. (“Islam” means submission.) Christianity, on the other hand, sees God as personal, constituted by love, and to be freely accepted not commanded into submission. If God is an idea, we can understand God, but we can’t love God nor can God love us. The fact that God is love means we can be in a loving relationship with God that takes precedence over and is the foundation of all other actions we take towards God and others.

[3] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.”

[4] Although Christians cannot discount the possibility that there are those who, like the Apostle Paul, receive a direct communication from God in their calling (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-22; 26:12-18; Galatians 1:11-24), ordinarily there will be no discipleship without a human community of faith. Even Paul had his communities and partners from whom he learned and with whom he grew. Barnabas, who first brought Pak to Antioch is an example of a mentor in the life of the great apostle (Acts 13).

[5] I have looked through my sermons and on the internet for the source of his story, but I cannot find it no matter how hard I look. The idea is, of course, that our relationship with God will involve difficulties. In Mother Teresa’s case, we know that she experienced a long, long period of darkness of the soul when God ceased giving her overt indications of his love for her. Mother Teresa continued in the life of discipleship for a long time without the consolations of God’s obvious presence in her life.

[6] See James Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989), 21ff. The Transforming Moment is one of the best books on how faith initially and subsequently transforms the human person. My analysis of Paul’s conversion is dependent upon and closely follows that of Dr. Loder.

4. Come Follow Mw

“Come Follow Me” is the next essay in this series on discipleship. This week, we move from a more abstract look at discipleship and our culture to the practicalities of how Jesus discipled people, and therefore, how we should disciple people.

The Biblical records that, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus began by calling the disciples into a personal relationship with 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 as they went about 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 before going on with your life.” He did not ask for an intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, and then go back living the way you did before.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment involving mind, heart, body, and soul. He asked for a radical break with the past. 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 you will not fish for fish; you will fish for people.”

It is precisely at this point that true discipleship begins. At the beginning, the disciples had no idea of exactly who Jesus was and what he had come to do. They hoped he would be a politico-military Messiah that Jewish tradition anticipated. Nevertheless, they left their nets, and followed him. In the Protestant tradition, we often overlook the fact that there was an act of obedience right at the beginning of the life of discipleship. Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “In the gospels, the very first step a man must take is an act which radically affects his entire existence.” [1] The beginning of discipleship is following Jesus.

Too often, modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if simply recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. In evangelism and discipleship, we often ask people to merely make a verbal statement of faith and perhaps say a prayer. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being (Romans 10:9). [2] If one believes something, it makes a practical difference in life.

Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life. They follow him wherever he leads. This is where the artificial division between faith and works is overcome. Those who believe also trust and obey. [3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23-24). To be transformed by the love of God is to become an obedient child of the Father. To be a disciple is to be a follower of Christ.

Following God in Christ

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was, even though they seemed not to understand until after his death and resurrection. The key to the disciples attaining that knowledge was for them to enter a personal relationship. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew it would take personal commitment on his part and theirs. He knew they would have to learn trust him in all of life. He knew it would mean his sacrificial death on a cross. He even knew it would require that they learn to carry a cross as well. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. Jesus wanted them to spend time with him, follow him around, hear his teachings, observe his responses to situations, and experience his leadership so that they could become more like him. Therefore, his first act was to call them into a life changing personal relationship.

Deciding to Follow Jesus

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the first disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if he 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. People today have to make the same decision the first disciples made. [4] They must decide to follow Jesus.

The first 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 went to the Temple periodically and made sacrifices and attended festivals. They went to the synagogue in Capernaum. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had much 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. They had to decide whether they would respond or not.

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:20; Mark 1: 18, 20; Luke 5:11). Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, and being engaged in family and civic affairs, 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 had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care. They had to decide without any of this history. They were the first followers.

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 into the eyes of a traveling rabbi and answer the question, “Will I follow him or not?”

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked: “Am I willing to follow Jesus and to trust him in all my daily life?” “Am I willing to give up everything 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 to people, “Are you ready to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to trust and follow Jesus in all of life?” 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 constantly reminds us that Jesus does not want admirers—he wants imitators.” [5] 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 part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal of the life of discipleship. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christs, 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,” being changed into people filled with the life of God. We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christian faith is not simply objectively knowing who Jesus is, memorizing a few Bible verses, and learning three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life based on faith and powered by grace. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus Christ. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together with others, of discovering and using our 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. This is why Jesus says, if anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt.10:23, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:32) 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

A 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 verbal formula and mental acceptance to propositions about God expressed in a creed, confession, or theological position. The word we translate “Faith” is also translated “Trust”. [6] Faith is seen in trusting and following Christ and responding faithfully to the pressures of daily life. Real, active faith is seen in disciples who follow Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise. Real faith is seen in a life-transforming relationship with the living God.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by obeying a theological authority or 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 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 cheap grace was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus in the concrete, daily business of life. It is a call to commit 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. It means giving our lives, families, careers, hobbies, and social circle to God. This includes cross-bearing.

Learning to Bear a Cross Now and Again

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 although we are not required to by law, divine 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 on the basis of that love. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally, and accepting whatever that commitment requires. [7]

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 with whom I was theologically most in sympathy, and those with whom I wanted to side, were not adopting the best or most godly strategy, and therefore behaving inappropriately. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side of the dispute, whose proponents were not acting appropriately 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 Christian walk. It was a time of deep 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. In point of fact, sometimes when we are doing our most important work for Christ, this is exactly what will happen.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty-five years and a Christian for well over thirty-five years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader know that following Jesus does not exempt person from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say, “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. 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. Faith involves turning away from the past, moving out into the future, and trusting in the wisdom and love of God. Faith requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus, we will turn away from the life we lived in the past, and live on the basis of the new life we have in Christ. If we have faith, we will trust Jesus, move out in faith, and live like Jesus, 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 also 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 involves works—in doing something, living in a particular way, taking a particular risk, living differently from others around you. We all have something to do because we follow Jesus. 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 in Jesus, we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be wiser, more loving, more caring, and 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.

Trust/Faith as a Personal Journey

There is confusion in our society and in churches about the nature of faith. Just as we are too easily believers in cheap grace, we are also often believers in cheap 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? Does faith mean accepting Jesus and trying to be a bit better than one was before? The answer is, “No.” Faith involves transformation.

The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The Biblical 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, Abraham 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 (“OK God, I will go). 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, Abraham’s 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 exactly 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 be. 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.

This faith does not change us all at once as if by magic. The life of faith is a life of constant slow transformation. Over time in the life of faith we are slowly but surely 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 Abram went on a journey with God and was changed into a new person, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus and were changed, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith that will change us. It is journey of following Jesus 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. It means asking Jesus into our hearts daily 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 alleys, 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 be obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us late on the next to last day when we were 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 clearly see Jesus or where he is leading us. Sometimes, the way is obscured. 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 or in the advice of others. 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 we need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, because of his steadfast love, God 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).

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of “Costly Grace,” he is speaking of a grace that transforms us and molds us into new beings. Divine grace never leaves us where we were before we received it. Real grace fits us to come and die to self with the crucified Christ, so that we may be raised to a new and different life by his resurrection power. Grace requires more of us than mere recognition of who Jesus is. It requires that we unreservedly commit our lives and futures to God through him and in light of his revelations to us of God’s nature as love.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. This is a major focus of Bonhoeffer’s work. Bonhoeffer clearly saw that there was a problem in contemporary Christianity which had become so focused on faith and grace it had forgotten the element of obedience and trustful, loving action from a center of faith in Christ.

[2] This two-fold act of believing, confessing with lips and believing in the heart, is important to understanding the Christian life. In the Jewish way of thinking, the heart was and is the center of thought and life. While our minds conceive of a thing, it is our hearts that commit us to a course of action. Thus, in proverbs, God as the father figure instructs the believer to put his commandments in his or her heart (See for example, Proverbs 2:2; 3:3; 7:3)

[3] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. Bonhoeffer leaves no doubt at this point, saying: “Only the obedient believe.”

[4] See, Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity Howard V. & Edna H. Fong ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 9-10. It was Kierkegaard’s insight that contemporary believers must accept Christ with just the same kind of faith and degree of trust that the first disciples did.

[5] See, Practice in Christianity, 233 ff. The quote is a summary of what Kierkegaard is after in his entire Practice in Christianity. Nevertheless, he definitely distinguishes between imitators who follow, and admirers. For one example, “if we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, recue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.” Id. Throughout the text, Kierkegaard is reminding readers that to believe is to follow and imitate, not to simply hold a conviction as to who Christ was.

[6] The Greek word for faith, “pistos” means to have the kind of faith that results in trust. It has the connotation of obedience. This is why when I translate the term from the Greek, I almost always use the term, “Trust/Faith.” Modern, post-Reformation Christians too easily fail to grasp that faith trusts and trust means acts in accordance with what is believed. See, Kittel, G & Friedrich, G, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1985), 849ff.

[7] Bonhoeffer is emphatic at this point. “If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him,” Cost of Discipleship, at 101.

3. The Challenge of Discipleship in our Culture: The Unblessed Life

This week is the most complex of the chapters until we reach the very end. Next week, we begin to ask and answer the question, “How would Jesus respond and have us respond in this context?”

Christians proclaim Jesus is, “The Way, The Truth, and the Life.” For those who believe, the declaration seems obvious. Nevertheless, for many non-Christians in our society, the words are meaningless. There is no one way of life. Everyone simply chooses a lifestyle that pleases them. There is no universal truth. There is only the perspectives of various people, groups, and disciplines. There is no inherent goodness or beauty. There is only one kind of life, what the ancients called, “Bios.” There is no moral or spiritual life not reducible to biology. Jesus is not “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” because no one can be anything more than their own, way, truth and life.

The decline of Christian faith parallels the decline of the modern world and the emergence of a post-modern, post-Christian age. [1] Christians have been slow to apprehend the dramatic shifts in the culture—a culture Christian faith helped to create and sustain, and which Christians generally assume will continue to be receptive to their religious vision. This is untrue. As a retired professor observed, “We were slow to discern that the culture is not our friend.” [2] In particular, the church has been slow to recognize a new dominant world view that is replacing a Christian world view as the primary way in which people structure reality.

This new world view might be summarized in the following way:

We are alone in the physical universe, which constitutes the only reality. In this universe, there is no embedded notion of truth, beauty or goodness. These concepts are matters of personal choice. We humans must, therefore, create our own meaning and lives by acts of personal choice. All attempts to force such ideas upon others are a form of coercion by which one group forces its will upon others. Personal pleasure attained by the acquisition of personal experiences and things that can provide desired experiences are the means by which humans create their lives. [3]

Sociologists remind us that all people live in cultures characterized by “plausibility structures” that define what is reasonable and sensible and what is not. The world view of modern society has created a “crisis of credibility” within which Christian beliefs, values, and morals no longer make sense to many people, and especially the youngest, best educated, and most successful members of the cultural elite. [4] the new plausibility structure assumes that any kind of universal, transcendent truth is impossible.

Basic Features of Our New Cultural Reality

There are basic features of this new cultural reality that impact discipleship and disciple-making in important ways, and which make our culture increasingly hostile to the message of the gospel. Here are a few of the most important:

My Truth is Only True for Me

Nothing is more common than to hear people voice the opinion that “all truth is relative.” [5]  In our culture, when applied to faith and morals “true” means “true for me,” as opposed to “true” in the sense of accurately rendering external reality independent of my ideas about it. In this kind of society, it is difficult to make persuasive unpopular or counter-cultural truth claims, and especially religious claims, such as the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” Such claims are dismissed as silly. A popular way of expressing this aspect of postmodernity is, “You have your truth; I have mine.”

In our culture, truth claims are often seen as nothing more than an attempt by the person making the claim for power or control over another person or group. While it is positive to understand that all expressions of truth inevitably involve the social condition and bias of the claimant, this positive aspect is often overwhelmed by a negative inference that there is no objective moral or other reality outside of isolated individuals, who ought to be able to live, think, and act as they see fit.

The Christian story has a powerful response to the nihilistic vision of radical postmodernism. The foundation of the postmodern critique of religion lies in its view that all truth claims involve a bid for power. The claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and should be followed by all people is seen as nothing but a claim for power over the lives of people.  Christian faith and the Biblical narrative are, however, exempt from this critique. The fundamental insight of Christian faith is that God is a person characterized by self-giving, self-sacrificing love (1 John 4:8). God in Christ forsakes all power and privilege for the sake of the human race and gives God’s self in an act of sacrificial love. (Philippians 2:5-11). Far from being a bid for power, Christian faith at its best is a bid for love. While Christians often not do not live up to this ideal, the Biblical story speaks of forsaking power in love for the sake of the world.

I Alone Make All My Choices

Contemporary society is hostile to any form of tradition, authority, and historic communal norms that might burden an individual’s “free choice.” [6] The bias of the modern age against authority and tradition is reflected in the radical individualism that permeates Western culture. The good life involves the ability to do “whatever I want to do so long as I do not hurt anyone else.” In such a culture, the idea that individual desires and goals may need to be sacrificed for the good of parents, children, city, state, or nation seems quaint and out of date. In recent years, this radical individualism has moved from being the province of a narrow elite to being an underlying assumption of the vast majority of people. For most people today, traditional sources of authority, such as parents, pastors, business and political leaders, as well as the authority of such intellectual works like the Bible, are either lost or greatly undermined.

Nowhere is the narcissistic individualism of contemporary society more evident than in the decline of marriage and family. When the primary goal of human life becomes self-fulfillment, the kind of self-sacrifice required to maintain strong marriages and families is inevitably absent. In the early 1960s, a convenient fiction was born, holding that even where a marriage had already produced children, divorce was preferable to lovelessness and constant strife. The alternative of learning to love the other out of duty and creating a home of peacefulness was not deemed a rational alternative. The result has been what is sometimes called an “epidemic” of divorce, weak families, a decline in standards of living, and children with deep, unhealed spiritual wounds. [7]

If it Feels Good, I Should Do It

Without question, the dominant moral philosophy of the early twenty-first century America is a kind of hedonism. [8] The idea that the good life is synonymous with a life of personal pleasure is part of the everyday environment within which most people live. This hedonism surrounds and permeates our culture. The idea that pleasure, and especially physical pleasure, sits at the center of the good life bombards people on television, in movies, and in the music to which they listen.

A subtle form of hedonism is often found among Christians. Many people who would never affirm their commitment to a life lived for personal pleasure engage in activities that are indistinguishable from the activities of non-Christians. Often, Christians have affairs, drink heavily, use recreational drugs, collect pleasurable experiences, are financially greedy, and engage in other hedonistic activities no less frequently than non-Christians. Despite what Christians, including church leaders, may say about the meaning of religious faith, a silent internal, secular worldview impacts everything from the family budget, to the cars they drive, to the time spent on hobbies, to personal fitness and grooming, to their actual commitment to other people. [9]

 What is Right is What I Feel  is Right for Me

The radical individualism and moral hedonism of our culture combines with the modern awareness of cultural differences in fundamental belief systems to create a form of radical moral and spiritual relativism that characterizes the moral and religious beliefs and behavior of many people. [10]  Often, people do not so much personally reject traditional moral standards as they disregard their application to themselves or other persons who do not see them as personally “right for them.” This way of thinking puts Christian leaders, whose teaching and preaching inevitably involves moral issues, in a dilemma. Christians must either speak in ways that are unpopular and live with the resulting rejection or conform the teachings of the Scriptures and Church to contemporary moral norms. Many choose the latter course.

During one of my advanced degree programs, I saw the fundamental irrationality of this modern way of thinking dramatically demonstrated in a conversation among theological students. During a class, the notion of radical moral relativism was advanced by the leader. After class, a group continued the discussion. Finally, I asked the major proponent of the moral relativistic position, “Do you mean that there is no moral difference between a tribe of pigmies that engage in human sacrifice and Christian morals?” Before the person thought, he immediately answered, “Yes.” The entire class went quiet as a large group of people confronted the implications of what they had been taught in their undergraduate and graduate programs.

I am Responsible for My Life Story

Scholars tell us that human beings are by nature narrative thinkers.[11] We instinctively place our lives within the context of a story, in which we are a main character. In most previous societies, there was a kind of over-arching story that allowed people to construct a narrative in which their life made sense and had meaning and purpose. Old Testament stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and the patriarchs, Moses, Deborah, Joshua, and the exilic generation, Gideon and the Judges, Saul, David, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Solomon, and the decline of David’s kingdom, and its fall provided for ancient Israel a meaningful story around which human life could be structured and meaning found. [12]  Christians have traditionally believed that the story of God’s relationship with humanity as rendered in the Jewish and Christian Bibles (the Old and New Testaments), and especially the life, death and resurrect on of Jesus, and the writings of the New Testament authors provide an overarching story that gives a context and guidance to human life. This is precisely meta-narrative postmodern thinking rejects. [13]

A basic challenge for contemporary Christians in sharing the Christian story is that we live in a “world that has lost its story.” [14] Our culture is characterized by rejection of any “meta-narrative” (or overarching story) that seeks to give meaning and direction to human life. Not only do contemporary people not believe the Christian story, they often do not believe there is any meaningful story around which to order their lives. The result is an inability of people to form their lives and make decisions in light of the biblical or any other story, except that which they create for themselves. The Christian narrative has been replaced by the secular narrative discussed above.

Modern society has been unable to sustain and renew its intellectual, moral and spiritual foundations in light of the challenges it has faced both intellectually and practically, with the result that it has largely collapsed into radical individualism and moral and spiritual relativism. [15] The result is cultural decline and disintegration. In basic ways, the cultural ruins we see around us is evidence that the Christian story is truer than the secular story that has increasingly replaced it.

The False Gospel of “Entertainmentism”

Into the emptiness created by the loss of a meaningful story has entered the entertainment industry, which provides endless narratives to replace the Biblical story. This industry is central to the lives of modern people. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry is shallow, simplistic, adolescently romantic, obsessed with sex, and often violent. As a result, it is normally unrealistic in the stories it tells in television, movies, music, and other forms. Often, its communication techniques make consciously irrational appeals to emotions. Sex and violence are the vehicles of choice in this emotional appeal. The end result is a culture saturated with the values of the entertainment media is one with a deep and abiding lack of interest in truth and a romantic avoidance of reality. One author describes it in the following manner:

For all practical purposes, the U.S. today is a 24-hour, TV entertainment society. Everything in contemporary America is an entertainment, from sporting event to big business, politics, certainly religion, and even academia. If it isn’t fun, cute, or packaged in ten-second sound bite, then forget it. If it can’t be presented with a smiling, cheerful, sexy face, then it ain’t worth attending to. We’re all spectators in a grand entertainment society. [16]

Recently, my wife and I have been watching a television show that exemplifies the problems with the contemporary entertainment industry. The story line we have been following concerns of a group of young people who are able to travel backwards in time. [17] Two different groups are attempting to manipulate and control the direction of human history. Roughly speaking, one group is portrayed as “the bad guys” and the other as “the good guys.” The good guys kill just as many people and act as irrationally as the bad guys, except that they are trying to protect human freedom. The bad guys are trying to control the future for their own political and economic interest. The bad guys are mere caricatures of the people the media industry dislikes.

The show is saturated by human self-assertion and ethical chaos. The characters struggle with the idea that there might be a higher power who controls the future, but of course there isn’t one active in their plot line, and so they must struggle to create a meaningful future all on their own. They have to make choices. Deep in the problems with show is what Walter Wink calls, “the myth of redemptive violence,” – the notion that violence can be redemptive if only the “good guys” defeat the “bad guys.” (It’s not redemptive for the bad guys kill the good guys.) [18] The result is a constant replay of a shallow, relativistic, philosophy the writers where probably taught in High School and College. In addition, because the show takes the watcher back into history, occasionally the watcher is treated to a shallow, cartoon version of history, sometimes distorted.

A society dominated by entertainment reduces complex problems to sound bites and catchy lyrics. It reduces basic moral and spiritual dilemmas of the human race to a simplistic one-hour drama. It allows people to view sex and violence without consequences. The news depictions of our politics have become similarly shallow. If complex problems are often oversimplified by politicians, the media has largely lost interest in educating the public in the facts, which are often complex and difficult to understand, finding it easier to give opinion pieces and distorted coverage of current events. Complex problems, like the national debt cannot receive proper attention. They are too complex and solutions would require self-denial in a culture addicted to self and selfish consumption.

This culture of oversimplification impacts discipleship, because of the pressure to communicate the Scripture and the content of the confessional standards in simple, even simplistic, ways. Furthermore, the way in which worship services and other church programs are conceived and presented must increasingly take notice of the way in which the entertainment industry structures reality and the acquisition of new information and ideas. None of this is necessarily helpful to those who wish to communicate historic Christian faith.

 The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins

When persons from less developed nations visit Europe and North America, they immediately notice the vast array of goods and services available to those who live in these cultures. (Often, they bring with them a list of items it is difficult or expensive to acquire back home to purchase for friends and loved ones.) America and Europe have become shopping paradises.

With the passing of the World War II generation, most Americans cannot remember a time not characterized by relative prosperity. Recessions aside, the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans today far surpasses that of their grandparents. The impact of consumerism upon the culture is important, deep, and pervasive. A culture without meaning and purpose is likely to find endless consumerism attractive and distracting. People too easily come to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

The economies of Europe and North America have evolved from struggling to meet basic human needs to providing a growing supply of goods and services to an affluent consumer market. Marketing has moved from a means by which people with basic needs find products to meet those needs to the creation of needs in ever increasing, narrow product niches. The definition of the “good life” is increasingly dominated by the feeling that “good” and “abundant” are identical concepts.

The consumer culture is a challenge to the gospel, the Church, and leaders. Many members of local congregations have difficulty resisting consumerism; however, church leaders and their families are not exempt from the disease I call “consumeritis.”[19]  Consumerism assumes human happiness can be purchased, that the acquisition of things will bring happiness, and that the experience of ownership and possession is redemptive. Few people explicitly articulate this faith, but many people practice it. The bumper sticker that reads, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is truer for more people than they want to admit, including many who would never admit that things constitute the primary focus of their lives.

Advertising and the media constantly communicate the idea that new cars, new hair sprays, and new soft drinks can bring happiness and fulfillment to the one who acquires them. A kind of disconnect often exists between the gospel that is preached and the life that is lived, making authentic spirituality hard to achieve and maintain in a local congregation. Alternatively, some congregations have adopted a consumer-oriented approach to ministry that is not fully faithful to the Gospel. This situation is especially true in those denominations that sit at the center of American culture.

Materialism: There is Nothing Beyond the Physical World.

Sitting beneath the superficiality of a consumer culture is the reality of a materialistic culture, a culture that assumes that the material world is primary, and physical goods and services are redemptive. Deep in the modern and postmodern psyche is the notion that the physical universe is the only and ultimate reality. In this way of thinking, all that exists are material things and the forces that act upon them. [20]

God is considered not to exist or to be a part of the only and ultimate reality, the physical universe. Pantheism (the belief that everything is God) is one religious response to a materialistic worldview. A more common practical reaction is a movement of religion to the human psyche, where it is viewed either negatively as a neurosis or positively as a principle of self-transcendence and wholeness. New age and other similar forms of popular religion often emerge from this kind of thinking. In any case, such a religious foundation is powerless against the overwhelming materialism of the culture.

Among churches, an overt attempt to find a place within a fundamentally materialistic worldview is common. In liberal circles, this accommodation is evident in its theological accommodation to a materialistic and anti-supernatural worldview. In evangelical circles, the accommodation often emerges in a different form, such as an uncritical adoption of psychotherapeutic techniques and notions. In conservative churches there is often a wholesale philosophical rejection of modernity, coupled with an uncritical acceptance of this means, methods, and goals. [21] In both cases, discipleship has been hampered by the false world view accepted by groups.

Our “Postmodern” Context

Our social context is often referred to as “Postmodern.” The term “Postmodern” is both deceiving and not always helpful. [22] All the name connotes is that we live “after” the Modern Era. In fact, many characteristics of what is commonly called “postmodern” seem to indicate only the end-phase of the Modern Era. [23] Nevertheless, emerging and challenging realities captured under the rubric of “postmodernity” profoundly impact Christians and discipleship.

In ways, the culture we inhabit often involves a partial return to paganism. Unlike the ancient world, our cultural paganism is a “religionless paganism.” [24] In such a culture, discipleship must be lived out by disciples in the West without the social supports common in preceding generations. American society, in particular, has shifted from one in which Protestantism, especially mainline Protestantism, represents a societal religious and moral consensus to one in which many cultural elites are often openly hostile to Christian faith and morals. [25]

A culture characterized by consumerism, radical individualism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is a challenging culture in which to proclaim the gospel and form and sustain Christian community. I have experienced many conversations, particularly with older pastors, where the following statement was made. “It is no longer fun to be a pastor.” In noting the reactions of Third World observers to American cultural religion, Eugene Peterson makes and observation that, at least partially explains this sentiment:

What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the size and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, but they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy. [26]

Early twenty-first century America, characterized by consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is deeply at odds with the gospel and a form of life based on the Christian narrative. The resulting cultural patterns constitute a form of life deeply at odds with values that stand at the core of Christian faith and with the kind of life the gospel narrative encourage Christians to lead. As hostility toward the Christian meta-narrative has grown more intense in recent years, a tendency for the biblical story to be ignored or even suppressed developed in schools, colleges, universities, and the like. A corollary of this development is a decrease in the number of people outside and inside the Church who have a basic familiarity with the Biblical narrative. This decrease, in turn, makes communication of the gospel more difficult as many people simply do not have the kind of familiarity with the Christian story that permits them to understand and respond to the gospel. Furthermore, many inside the Church have either forgotten the story of the Bible or never knew it. [27] At the same time, secular society has developed a kind of lifestyle that is deeply at odds with many facets of historic Christianity.

Fortunately, Christian faith has a response to the critique of postmodernism. Christianity was not founded by a conqueror in a bid for power. The story of the gospel is the story of a God who forsakes perfection and power, endures suffering on behalf of humanity, dies a terrible death, all to reach into human history with the unimaginable self-giving love of God. At our best, Christians do not believe in a kind of religious imperialism by which every human being is compelled to believe in Christ. Instead, Christians fundamentally believe that, by reaching out in love and service to others and sharing the truth of God, people will without compulsion respond by the power of the Holy Spirit to the call of God to live lives of wisdom and love.

Christians who minister within the European and North American context in this cultural era have a unique challenge. Our ministry is to take people where they are found, caught in damaging cultural patterns, and shepherd them into a new way, the way of Christ. The sum total of the challenges posed by Western culture is the need to minister amid a deep and abiding sense that the way of Christ and the way of this world are radically different. The need is to develop the kind of character than can build and sustain Christian community in the face of the cultural challenges Christians face. Merely repeating past truisms will not do. Faith divorced from a distinctive way of life will not do. Cheap grace dispensed for sins few people either acknowledge as sin or believe are sins will not do. Only the truth embodied in love will do. Until then, we will be trapped in a crisis of discipleship.

Copyright 2019, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A good deal of this chapter is based on research done for my Doctor of Ministry Degree. A more heavily footnoted version of this chapter can be found in G. Christopher Scruggs, Practices and Characteristics for Pastors Renewing Mainline Congregations: Studies from the Presbytery of Memphis (Unpublished Dissertation, Accepted March 25, 2005).

[2] Nelson, C. Ellis. Private conversation (14 March 1994).

[3] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 1

[4] Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. (New York, NY: Anchor, 1967), 151; see also. Berger, Peter L. Rumor of Angels (New York, NY: Anchor, 1970).

[5] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1987), 25. Professor Bloom points out what has been my experience both as a student in the late 20th Century and a teacher. The younger American generations have been indoctrinated into a world view in which “truth” means “true for me.

[6] Trueblood, E. J. The Dawn of the Postmodern Era (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1954), 19.

[7] This radical individualism is increasingly felt in the Church. The notion of an authoritative text read as part of a tradition is difficult to sustain in a postmodern environment. Church leaders are confronted each and every day with persons for whom the notion of authority, and perhaps especially the notion of pastoral authority, have little or no meaning. The result for church leaders is an intense pressure to succumb to such views or constantly minister in an environment in which church leaders can do little more than support persons. Furthermore, church leaders are not immune from such radical individualism in their own lives.

[8] “Hedonism” is an ancient Greek moral theory that the ethical life can be reduced to seeking pleasure or happiness and the avoidance of pain or unhappiness. It was founded by a pupil of Socrates, and its name comes from the Greek word for pleasure. This idea has been important in religious and moral thinkers since Greek times, and profoundly impacts some forms of both Pragmatism and Utilitarianism.

[9] The pleasure-seeking aspect of modern and emerging postmodern culture is especially evident in the way in which sexuality both dominates secular politics and the Church’s agenda and distorts the Church’s life mission. Recent headlines involving the incidence of child molestation by Roman Catholic priests, the continuing divisions in mainline churches over homosexuality, and highly publicized heterosexual clergy misconduct are but examples of the way in which the hedonism of modern culture invades the Church. Addiction to pornography, a challenge in many cultures, is made much more pervasive by its easy availability on the Internet. In such a culture, the idea that self-denial and suffering are part of the good life is at odds with the form of life that surrounds people.

[10] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 9.

[11] See, Hauerwas, Stanley and Jones, L. Gregory, eds. Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989).

[12] In ancient Greece, the story of the Iliad with its exaltation of the heroism of Achilles and Hector formed the consciousness of people. Within the great story of the Iliad, kings, warriors, men, women, servants, and the like all found examples of where they could go right in life and how they could go wrong. See, Alister McIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), whose analysis I have shortened but largely followed.

[13] This aspect of postmodernity is especially troubling. Human beings seem to naturally seek to understand their lives as a story, and to place themselves in some way within that story as a character. The loss of narrative inevitably means the loss of place. It means the loss of identity, meaning and purpose, as it becomes less possible to find a coherent place in the events of daily life.

[14] Jenson, Robert W. “How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things Oct. 1993: 19-24.

[15] Postmodern thinkers have abandoned any hope that any core symbolic world or meta-narrative can provide a unified vision and narrative structure for human life. [15] Unsurprisingly, the result has been cultural decline and growing social chaos. One pressing need in ministering to post-modern people is to recover the notion of the Bible as providing a non-violent narrative which provides meaning and purpose as well as ultimate justification for a free and open society. Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 42-43. Interestingly, the Postmodernists do propose a metanarrative of their own, one that denies the possibility of unified spiritual and moral vision for human life. See also, After Virtue, previously cited.

[16] Mitroff, Ian I., and Warren Bennis. The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989), 16.

[17]  Timeless, NBC New York (October 3, 2016-December 20, 2018). Timeless is an action drama in the science fiction genre.

[18] Wink, Walter, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 13-31. Wink has written extensively on the powers and principalities and the way in which a misunderstanding of them can warp Christian thought ad action. In my view Wink is too captive to his own left-wing ideology, and thereby weakens his case. We are all inclined to be controlled by the powers and principalities, not just one group of people.

[19] “Consumeritus” is a term I coined for the ‘consumer’ orientation of our economy and the way in which it encourages people to find meaning in acquiring things. The “itis” indicates that Consumeritus is actually a disease of the soul.

[20] One of the clearest indications that the modern world cannot continue is that this belief in material objects and forces is completely contrary to our most sophisticated understanding of the universe in which we live. The ultimate nature of material reality seems not to be material. It can be described as disturbances in fields or even as information, but whatever the ultimate reality is, it is not material. Our intellectual leaders, politicians, business people, and religious leaders have hardly begun to accommodate the relativistic, relational, information-centered view of the world favored by contemporary quantum physics and increasingly other disciplines as well.

[21] Nowhere is the impact of materialism more evident than in arguments over human sexuality. Whether the debate is over marital fidelity or alternative forms of sexual expression, the argument used often involves some form of an argument that “people are born this way.” At the root of the widespread acceptance of this argument is a materialistic notion of reality in which religious faith may give subjective support to persons but is unable to change ultimate reality. On the other hand, among conservative Christians, there is often little difference between how they in fact live and the life-style evident in the culture as a whole.

[22] The term postmodernity is used in a variety of ways by various authors. In general, the term postmodern is used to describe both a philosophical movement and an emerging cultural reality. The postmodern intellectual period is generally thought to have begun with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his powerful indictment of both Christianity and Enlightenment optimism concerning human reason. Culturally, the postmodern period is generally thought to have begun to emerge after the First World War, which engendered a tremendous alienation from Western Culture among European intellectual elites. Both the philosophical and cultural aspects of postmodernism are very complex. This study does not presume to provide a comprehensive analysis of postmodern thought. It sought to give a pastoral analysis sufficient for a study of transformational leadership in the contemporary church. Worth noting, however, is that I believe that postmodernism is “here to stay” as a cultural phenomenon, and pastors must minister within postmodern America and to people who are consciously or unconsciously affected by its theory and cultural artifacts. As a cultural reality and as a philosophical movement, postmodernism has aspects that are both positive and negative for the Church and for Christians who witness to Christ under its conditions.

[23] See note 4 above.

[24] This “religionless paganism” is sometimes referred to as neo paganism. Just as postmodernity refers to something after modernity, neo paganism refers to a new form of paganism. The actual content varies because it is a kind of eclectic collection of beliefs that people choose to adopt. What defines them as pagan is the fundamentally manipulative nature of the beliefs, which is to say that the “divine” is put at the heart of human striving. From a Christian standpoint, neo-paganism is both superstitious and idolizing.

[25] The emergence of “new age” ideas clearly often involve a kind of religion, and even supernatural forces, so the emerging culture is not void of spiritual ideas. When I use the term pagan, I mean a kind of return to the pre-Christian notions of society and morals.

[26] Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unpredictable Plant. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 37

[27] A common experience of pastors and other Christian leaders is the pervasive lack of familiarity with the biblical narrative even among Christians. The emergence of the Internet, which many people thought would be a great help in alleviating this problem has significantly helped the problem. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for a long-term commitment to study the Bible in some detail. Obviously, some passages are more important than others, and some sections clearer than others. Many of the programs that gave churches and Christian organizations a vehicle for deep discipleship in the past the longer seem to work in the postmodern context.

The Blessed Life

We live in a curious age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from so much anxiety about the future, life, their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level, and the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but notably in the United States, the so-called “leader of free world,” demonstrate a lack of trust in the way of life and institutions that provide the highest standard of living and the most freedom experienced anywhere in human history. Sadly, among Christians, fewer and fewer people live as fully committed disciples. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Numerous social commentators, Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, traditionalist and radical, note that there is something troubling about our society. Commentators do not agree on what is wrong, how serious the problem is, or what to do in response to the problems they see—they just agree there is a problem. No significant period of time goes past without someone publishing an article with a title something like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” [1] These articles focus on indications that something is deeply wrong with our culture. Many of the commentators see at the root of our society’s problems the reality that material wealth, prosperity, pleasure, consumption, leisure, and the like cannot provide meaning, purpose, love, or inner strength, and security. In fact, the relentless search for meaning and purpose by the means advocated by our society result in increasing loss of meaning, purpose, love, inner strength, and security. The result is pervasive loneliness, isolation, neurosis and anxiety.

One reason we have so much trouble resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The good life involves feelings of personal pleasure and happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, exercise, pleasurable experiences, travel, recreation, hobbies and other forms of self-actualization are important to achieving to this good life. Some people believe that government can and should arrange to create this good life on behalf of its citizens. Other people believe it should be created by private industry and personal initiative, but nearly everyone believes in some kind of earthly paradise in which all our human expectations and desires can be and are met. [2]

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Interestingly, Jesus never talked about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, attaining a degree of physical beauty, staying fit and healthy, acquiring wealth, getting ahead financially, consuming increasing amounts of goods and services, traveling, pleasurable experiences, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. Jesus did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

The Blessed Life Now and For Jesus

Jesus’ teachings concerning the blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. When people in our society use the word “blessed,” in almost any of its forms, it usually involves something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” “I am blessed with four healthy children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on and on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

On the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. [3] In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [4] Jesus seems to be saying that everything the modern world believes leads to the blessed life does not.

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves we acquire. Instead it is something we experience within ourselves. Moreover, because of the nature of the blessing, the blessed life is not something we naturally seek, but can only receive as a gift from God. The exterior life, upon which modern people place so much emphasis, is secondary. It is our relationship with God and with his plans and purposes that is primary in life. In other words, Jesus thinks our society has things completely backward!

Secular reason does not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life without the intervention of God. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. [5] The blessed life is received by faith in God and in his Word. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone, under the inspiration of God, has to tell us about this blessed life in Christ and show us what it looks like.  Someone must help us overcome our cultural addictions to power, pleasure, and possessions. That is why Christ came. In the end, the Spirit of Christ must work in us so that we can receive by faith what God has promised.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects an understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift from God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all-completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race, and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to Adam and Eve implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can joyfully appreciate and participate in the completion of God’s gracious intention for that creation.

The story of the fall reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse of the fall described in Genesis is not the abusive action of an angry God. It is the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God, creation, and other people for self-centeredness and self-seeking—a path that inevitably leads to alienation, misguided behavior, and suffering. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now restlessly roams the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

Blessings and Noah

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [6] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring, renewing, and blessing the human race.

Blessings and Abraham

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

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth   will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abram (Abraham) is not just for his genetic family. It is a blessing for the entire world and every tribe and nation. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. This blessing flows from the trustful relationship Abraham and his family are intended to have with God. Over and over again throughout Genesis, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14). This blessing through the kind of faith Abraham demonstrates continues to this day.

Blessings and the Wise Life

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,  but the way of the wicked leads to destruction (Psalm 1, ESV).

By the time Psalms was written, the people of Israel understood that the blessed life is achieved by following the teachings of God. The psalmists realize that God has revealed in nature and his word a way of life that leads to blessing. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also physical blessing that comes with obedience to the God’s instructions. The blessed life is achieved by following the way of blessing God has provided for the human race.

Those who follow the way of wickedness (i.e. act contrary to God’s will) can never be blessed. They have chosen a path that leads away from blessing. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature affirms this same idea: the blessed life is lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws (Proverbs 3:13-18). [7]For wisdom writers, the blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are received by those who develop a wisdom God imbedded in the universe. The Path of Life is the Path of Wisdom and is the most valuable blessing a person can receive in life, and it is the ground and source of all the other blessings of life. [8]

The blessed life is filled with the kind of wisdom that comes from God and from life in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s wisdom, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action in the practical affairs of life (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of wise, loving, trustful, and faithful conformity to God’s character and will (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14). [9]

Blessing and the Prophetic Life

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

If the recipe of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God and live according to God’s instructions and will. [10]Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel returned to faithfulness to God, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. [11]

Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [12]Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

The New Testament and the Blessed Life

 By Jesus’ time, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was achieved by participating in religious rituals and making proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following its details as interpreted by the rabbis. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law (those who took the Old Testament seriously) developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life. For the religious few, this form of life gave life meaning and purpose. For the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees a complicated and unachievable set of rules.

Certain forms of modern Christianity resemble the religious situation of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives “according to biblical principles.” Sometimes their understanding of these principles is quite detailed. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. Just as with the ancient Israelites, the life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable. [13]

The Change Jesus Made

When Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary people to become his followers, he revealed something new: The blessed life is not achieved by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship and the blessed life is a matter of a living relationshipwith God who is the source of wisdom and love. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ new way was a personal commitment to be in relationship, a commitment that we call “faith.” The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

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

The Disciples’ Long Period of Misunderstanding

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, pleasure, or victory over opposition. The crucified Messiah revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience wisdom or experience (I Cor. 1:16ff). This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

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

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility and acceptance of others, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is also a life of steadfast love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [14]Certainly, our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction.

Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life” cannot be found in having more things, achieving success, experiencing pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society and every other society always have been and are misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life? [15]

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

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

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

The disciples, like people today, did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of observation and personal interaction. It was not until after his cross and resurrection that they understood. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life. [16]

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

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A brief survey on the internet demonstrates the truth of his proposition. See for example, Farid Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Time Magazine, Thursday, March 3, 2003 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2056723,00.html(Downloaded, June 22, 2019); Eduardo Porter, “America’s Best Days May Be Behind It” New York Times, January 10, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/20/business/economy/a-somber-view-of-americas-pace-of-progress.html(Downloaded June 22, 2019). Patrice Lewis, “Why Our Best Days Are Behind Us” WNDhttps://www.wnd.com/2016/01/why-our-best-days-are-behind-us/(Downloaded June 22, 2019); Nigel Barber, “Are America’s Best Days Over?” Huffington PostMarch 18, 2017 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-americas-best-days-ov_b_9487770(Downloaded June 22, 2019).

[2] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good(New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.Just as the Jews were mistaken to reduce the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by a new and improved “Son of David,” when we reduce the gospel to a personal, economic or political agenda we are always wrong. In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world will ever know.

[3] In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by feelings of mere happiness. The blessed life depends on the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all true blessings. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

[4] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22. The differences between the Matthean and the Lukan descriptions of the Sermon on the Mount are significant, but not for the purposes of this book. In both cases, what Jesus is saying is at odds with what the vast majority of the people in our society see as blessings.

[5] This insight sits behind Paul’s observation in I Corinthians that the world cannot understand or accept the wisdom of God. It seems like foolishness to the human reason without the intervention of God (I Cor. 118-2:16).

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

[7] Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:13-18).

[8] Thus, wisdom writers go on to say:“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

[9]T he term “fear of the LORD can be difficult for modern readers. When I translate the phrase, I use the term “Deep Respect,” which captures the Biblical idea that God is so much greater than human beings that the only proper response before his wisdom and power is a kind of obedient, humble, and absolute respect. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), at 37

[10] It is important not to draw too great a distinction between the wisdom and prophetic writers. Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, are deeply influenced by and in substantial continuity with the wisdom writers and many of their writings could easily be classified as wisdom writings.

[11] Isaiah speaks of a coming “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for Israel (Isaiah 32:1). In the time of the Messiah, the people will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). They will finally be led by one under whose leadership they can receive the fullness of blessings for which they longed.

[12] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers, 165-193.

[13] In my first church, one member of a local congregation criticized me to one of my members for cutting my lawn on Sunday afternoons and coming to the bank in my running shorts. For this person, the “law of Christ,” just like the law of the ancient Jews prohibited any physical work on Sunday and for a religious person to expose himself in any way to others. In other words, this person was, for all intents and purposes, a modern Pharisee.

[14] Francis Schaeffer, HowShould We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and CultureRev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

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

[16] One important characteristic of the Gospel of Mark is the way in which it shows Peter and the other disciples as frequently either not understanding or misunderstanding who Jesus is and what Jesus has come to accomplish. They do not understand his Messianic Kingdom, the means by which the Kingdom of God will be established, or the kind of leadership they will be required to exercise in order to accomplish the tasks the Messiah is giving them. It is only in light of the resurrection that they can understand the mission of Jesus and the mission Jesus is giving them.

The Crisis of Discipleship 1

 

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]The thesis of the book was prophetic for his life and for the course of 20thCentury discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] He went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Cheap grace is the offer of forgiveness of sins in a way that costs a believer nothing and requires no faithful response. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Bonhoeffer took up his cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the Second World War. [3]

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, Cost of Discipleshipis often mentioned, a few quotes find their way into blogs, sermons and religious books (like this one), but Cost of Discipleshipis seldom read outside of college and seminary classes, and even more seldom internalized. Part of the problem is that the book was originally written in German, and German is a difficult language to translate into English, especially for readers who prefer short sentences and simple language.  Part of the problems is that Bonhoeffer was not a popular writer even in his own day. He was an academic, and his writing shows the influence of an academic mind. The book is simply not easy for modern people to read, fully understand, or digest.

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

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [4]

When a church, denomination, or other Christian group dispenses Cheap Grace, it dispenses God’s promise of forgiveness and new life like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a fraternity party. Discipleship characterized by cheap grace makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and how committed disciples live out the Christian life all over the world, sometimes in danger and persecution. Unfortunately, in one form or another, the gospel of Cheap Grace is too frequently the gospel of Western religious groups. [5]

Real grace is “Costly Grace.” Bonhoeffer characterized costly grace as like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44-46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. [6]

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from sin in the heart), who turns to God with everything he or she is and possesses, who takes up his or her cross in obedience to Christ and his teachings, and who lives a holy life in response to what God has done, is a person who has experienced true grace. True grace does not leave us as we are. True grace changes everything. The response of a human encounter with real, true grace, is a transformed life.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for Christianity, the problem is exponentially greater today in the increasingly “postmodern,” Western church. Western churches, and especially American churches, are addicted to cheap grace. In church after church, in sermon after sermon, in Bible study after Bible study, God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and redemption in Christ is preached without preaching God’s judgement on sin and the new life into which disciples are called by Christ. Building strong disciples is impossible if difficult passages and problems in Scripture are ignored or explained away. [7]The result is a weak, declining, and impotent Christianity.

I have been a disciple of Christ for over forty years. There is no question but what the condition of American Christianity is worse today than at any time during my lifetime. Tremendous cultural changes have deeply impacted American Christianity for the worse. Even unhealthier is the American propensity to value size and external and economic success, which has accelerated the development of a shallow form of Christian faith. The result is a crisis of discipleship.

The Command to Make Disciples

Jesus’ last act was to commission his disciples, saying: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age”(Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission was his last word and directive to his disciples then and now to carry out God’s program of salvation and new life that Jesus began during his earthly pilgrimage Making disciples is the supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. It is the reason for the existence of the Church.

Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, having a heart for people, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a God pleasing life. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and applauds. True discipleship is for every Christian.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers and mentors, and by observing our fellow Christians day-by-day. Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and relationship with that person in which we become transformed into the likeness of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ, we must become imitators and obedient children of Christ. As the New Testament so often puts it, we Christ must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

Because being a disciple involves a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, such a person is a fan or an interested onlooker. Disciples observe, emulate and become like the one they are learning from and into whose image they are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Christians do our best, and live wisely, when we emulate the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing his divine life to permeate our entire personality. It is not enough to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their intellectual belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to follow Christ, become more like Christ daily, and help others become more like Christ. Christians today must be willing and able to help other people live with the same integrity and self-giving love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. It even means that we are willing to suffer for the gospel as Christ suffered for the human race. This is the result of costly grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by an abstract understanding of knowledge. The world and God were objects to be studied and mastered not things and persons to be loved and cherished. In such a world, knowledge is measured by tests and one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information. The object of such knowledge is mastery of a subject and increasing control over reality. To the modern mind-set, any kind of knowledge that was not “scientific” or “objective” was not really knowledge at all.

Wisdom is different. To be wise, one must know some information. More importantly, one must apply and embody that information in everyday life. The earliest name for Christians was “people of the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22) To be a way is to be a path, road, highway, or boulevard that must be traveled on. Christian faith is a way of life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, a path of wisdom, a road that leads to life, a highway to a better relationship with God, a boulevard to holiness, an embodied knowledge of God. [8]The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling.Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [9]Christ chose twelve ordinary people and lived in relationship with them for his entire earthly ministry. He also lived in close fellowship with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings (Luke 8:1-3; 10:1; 14:25). Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus, and their time together in a discipling relationship, that propelled them to carry the Good News of his life, death and resurrection on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth as they understood it.

Jesus promised that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If people are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce potential disciples to him in a community in which Christ is present by the Holy Spirit.  If new Christians are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, they need to be mentored by people who are further along on the path of discipleship. People need to see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the day-to-day lives of other disciples. This involves being part of a fellowship that spends time in fellowship with one another and with God in Christ. It is so important for new believers to become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship, and without accountability for their life of discipleship, almost inevitably fall short or fail. Those who belong to a fellowship of believers have a better chance of succeeding in the Christian life.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing in community and in individual lives who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, did the kinds of things Jesus had done, and faced the same opposition and suffering Jesus faced. [10]

This is important. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people into authentic community, growing in discipleship together, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people. The reason for the crisis of discipleship we face is that most believers either never know or have largely forgotten how to do the task of making disciples.

The Commission to Make Disciples

According to Matthew, when Jesus ascended into heaven he left his disciples with a job to do and marching orders to do that job. Matthew ends his gospel with an important commission for his disciples (and for us):

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 28:18-20).

Jesus did not say, “Go have huge worship services with big organs or praise bands.” Jesus did not say, “Go build large buildings in which many people can come for one hour a week.” Jesus did not say, “Go build impressive institutions to continue your way of thinking about God.” Jesus did not say, “Have wonderful programs for children and youth.” Jesus did not say, “Have a program for every sort of person in your community. Jesus did not say, “Support that party or social agenda that you believe most compatible with Christian faith.” He said, “Go make disciples.”

If there is a crisis in the church today, it is a crisis of discipleship. The church has been too concerned with worship services, programming, numbers, money, institutional maintenance, sustaining the American way of life, creating a moral majority, reforming government, and the like. Christians have not been concerned enough at what sits at the center of what we have been asked to do: Make Disciples. If the Christian community is to exit its current decline, it will not be because of large worship experiences, crossless sanctuaries, focus on technique, programs, consultants, fund-raising, or new and greater institutional capacity. It will be because ordinary Christians have rediscovered what it means to make disciples.

I do not watch much football. However, I have noticed that, when a team gets in trouble, the coach often tells reporters, “We are going to concentrate on the basics.” The church in the West is in trouble. If the church is to survive into the emerging postmodern world, Christians must, like a football team, turn our attention back to the fundamentals. We must concentrate on the ‘blocking and tackling” of the Christian faith, and the blocking and tackling of Christian faith is disciple-making. To recover from the current crisis, we must be about being and making disciples.

The slow process of one-by-one disciple-making will not immediately seem the most successful or swift solution to the problems our churches and society face. However, in the end, it will be shown to have been the best and only solution to the current decline of faith and practice in the West. As with all real change, it will begin slowly and silently, but in the end will be shown to be fruitful, not primarily for the institutions of Christianity, but for the changed lives and vibrant faith of Christians.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipRev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963). The book was originally published in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book while a pastor in Spain after graduating from graduate school. In German, interestingly for the theme of this book, the title is literally, “The Act of Fallowing.” The theme of this book is that true Christian discipleship is following Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission of the church is to create followers of Jesus.

[2]Id, at 45.

[3]Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 by order of Adolph Hitler, one of his last acts before his own suicide and death on April 30, 1945. By the time of his death, Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned since April 5, 1943, or just over two years.

[4]Id, at 47.

[5]Western popular Christianity, liberal and conservative, is addicted to just the kind of cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warned.  Modern evangelicalism, in particular, has fallen victim to a popularization of Christian faith that focus on grace to the detriment of emphasis on the response to grace in faithful living.  Cheap Grace is everywhere the forerunner of a watered-down form of Christianity in which Christians, like the Corinthians of old, cannot tolerate the meat of the gospel, being addicted to the milk of salvation by grace alone (1 Cor. 3:2). One reason for this book is to encourage local fellowships of Christians in America and the West to begin to seriously build small groups of committed discipleships within their fellowships.

[6]Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[7]A recent comment by a well-known mega-Church pastor is but an example. Since the time of the early heretic Marcion (85-160 A.D.), the church as always recognized the continuity and validity of the Old and New Testaments for Christian faith and practice. The difficulties are not new; they are as old as the Christian faith. It is easier to unhitch ourselves from the old testament than to learn to understand the way in which Christian faith emerged from First Century Judaism, incorporated the Torah into its emerging Scriptures, and to understand the depth of the inheritance Christianity has from the Jewish Scriptures. This is not said to enter into a debate with this or any other pastor, but to give a concrete example of the temptation to avoid the hard work of discipleship. See, Steve Warren, “Christians need to Unhitch the Old Testament from their Faith: Andy Stanley’s Sermon Draws a Backlash” CBS News.Com May 11, 2018, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/may/christians-need-to-unhitch-the-old-testament-from-their-faith-andy-stanleys-sermon-draws-social-media-backlash( Downloaded July 23, 2019)

[8]This embodied knowledge of God is what the Orthodox Church refers to as “theosis,” or becoming like God. If Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:5), then in the process of discipleship disciples become like God by becoming like Christ.

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

[10]The Book of Acts consciously or unconsciously shows the apostles recapitulating in their lives the same mighty deeds, messages of power, and persecution and rejection that Jesus experienced in his life.

Beginning a New Series on Discipleship

The Beginning of a New Journey

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that I would begin a new series of weekly posts after Labor Day. It is after Labor Day! For the next eighteen weeks or so, I am going to be posting essays that form chapters of a book I have been writing on discipleship. I solicit comments, suggestions, etc. This is probably as far as the project will go, but I am hoping that people will be energized and enlightened by the work. Good Reading.

In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of “Cheap Grace.” [1] Today, perhaps because the institutional churches in the West did not take seriously the implications of The Cost of Discipleship, Christians face a “Crisis of Discipleship,” which is the theme of this series of essays. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger of losing another.” We cannot overcome our crisis of discipleship unless every Christian is motivated to be an authentic disciple of Christ, not simply a “believer.” For this to happen, the leadership of Christian congregations must take the Great Commission and discipleship training seriously.

My mentor, co-pastor, and friend, Dave Schieber, frequently repeats a refrain, “The Church is always only one generation from extinction.” [2] The church in the West is shrinking in numbers and influence. The impact of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and society has been dwindling for some time, longer than most people realize. Today, even so-called “evangelical” groups that grew rapidly during the post-World War II period, are shrinking in numbers and spiritual influence. The growth of larger, so-called “Mega-Churches,” has not prevented the decline, because much of their growth is from other Christian fellowships.  We are now within a generation of a collapse of authentic Christian faith and practice in America and the West.

Denominations, churches, pastors, and others have devised programs and strategies to stem the decline, with mixed results at best. The problem cannot be addressed effectively by worship strategies, programs or advertising savvy. It can only be addressed as individual Christians become committed disciples of Jesus, sharing God’s love with a broken world in obedience to the Great Commission.

My wife and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, she was in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study of young people, who were new Christians or seeking God in some way. (I was one of the seekers.)  Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [3] Salt & Light was (and is) an attempt to provide a simple lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to learn to make disciples in an orderly and effective way in contemporary culture.

The Great Commission was not given just to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. All Christians are intended to share the Good News of Christ and make disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Love and Light for 21stCentury Disciple-makers(the name for this series of essays) builds on the practical guidance of Salt & Light, clarifies causes of the crisis of disciple-making, and shares a deeper theory to guide contemporary disciple-making, and Salt & Lightin particular. Hopefully, readers will understand the crisis of discipleship in the West and more effectively lead disciple-making groups as a result of these essays.

In successive essays, Crisis of Discipleship will look that the crisis of discipleship in our time, its causes, the culture from which the crisis emerged, and the challenges our culture poses for those sharing their Christian faith. Having set the stage for the current crisis, Crisis of Discipleship shares a Biblical understanding of how Christians can reach out and share their faith with others. All the essays address the implications of the Great Commission, which might be paraphrased, “Go everywhere and make disciples of everyone you are able, bringing them to faith and teaching these new disciples to follow the teachings of the Messiah, who will always be present with those who go about the business of making disciples.”

This series of essays is intended for any reader who wishes to learn more about the Way of Jesus and how to share it with others. The collection is not a theological treatise. It is a compilation of practical discipleship theory and practice. The essays are designed to help those who desire to understand the barriers our culture places in the path of those who desire to share the Way of Christ in the contemporary world. There will be a brief analysis of the emerging postmodern world—a culture that is rapidly becoming world-wide due to the globalization of Western, and particularly American, culture in the late 20thCentury. Once this has been accomplished, the goal is to speak of the way in which small groups of Christians can learn to reach out within their network of relationships and make a difference in the lives of people.

Please join with me in a journey and conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture. Perhaps we can have some small amount of the dedication Paul reveals when he told the Corinthians, who were much like contemporary people”

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

May the Lord bless and keep each reader.

Chris Scruggs

Labor Day 2019

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] Dave embodies the relational mode of evangelism and discipleship that this book is intended to illuminate. He began with six persons and built Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN into a 1,500-member congregation all through a deep love for people and a willingness to enter into their world in a loving and wise way,

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

Practice Makes Perfect (or at least Better)

Practice Makes Perfect (Or At Least Better)

Mark 6: 9-13

(This is a version of a sermon I have given in the past in Memphis and Ohio.) It has been posted here before in a different format. 

I recently up golf as a serious matter. I returned to San Antonio from helping a church in Ohio on March 1 this year.  Our family spent most of March and April welcoming a new grandchild and caring for her parents. In May, we had two graduations, and so our time was filled with more grandparenting and celebrating two new graduates.

On June 1, we began what I call the “Scruggs Golf Camp.” I can’t afford to spend a month at Hilton Head or Palm Springs, so my strategy was to watch videos and read golf books at night, and then put into practice what we learned the next day at the course or the driving range. We also needed lessons, so, my wife and I took a few.

Since June, I’ve played or been at the range every day, read books by famous golfers, and watched endless instructional videos. I am not good, but I am getting better. What does it take to learn to play golf? It takes study, observing golfers play, hours of practice at the driving range, playing several times a week, and swinging a club sixty to 100 times a day for a long time.

Golf is hard, but being a disciple of Christ is much harder. Like golf, faith is not merely knowledge in our heads. [1] If that is all it is, it is a dead or inadequate thing (James 2:7). In order to be active disciples of Jesus, we need to practice our faith daily. Furthermore, we don’t need to practice a little. We need to practice a lot—more than we need to practice golf.

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

In our text, Jesus is traveling through the villages of the Galilee teaching (Mark 6:6). The disciples were in a kind of intensive Bible study and small group experience with Jesus—a kind of Christian golf camp. Day in and day out, they were with Jesus, watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, and sometimes running errands for Jesus. One day, Jesus was going to send the disciples to the ends of the earth sharing the Good News of the Kingdom and making disciples themselves. Therefore, he wanted them to practice being like him and doing the things he did.

Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from Mark 6: 6-13:

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure 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 shirt.Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet 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 6:6-13).

Prayer: Eternal God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Come this morning and inspire our hearts to become more like you and to follow our Lord Jesus even when we must get out of our comfort zones to do so. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

The term “practice” means the practical application of an idea, belief, method, or knowledge. When we practice something, we repeat the action time and time again until we get good at it. This is why we speak of practicing medicine or law. Professions, like sports, are not just areas of intellectual knowledge; they involve practical application of knowledge as a skill. In practical matters, head knowledge is not enough. We have to practice.

Returning to my analogy between golf and discipleship, when I began to play golf, I could not just read about golf or watch Tiger Woods play golf. As great a golfer as Tiger Woods is, watching him play is not enough to become a good golfer. To become a good golfer, you have to play golf a lot.

Jesus knew his disciples would not get the business of making disciples right the first (or even the second, third, fourth or fifth time). He knew that their “spiritual swing” was not going to get better without practice. He knew that it would not be a good idea for him to do all the teaching, healing, and casting out of demons, and then one day, BANG, send the disciples to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20). Therefore, he trained the disciples and made them practice what he had been training them to do.

One Sunday day in 1977, I was walking by the pastors’ offices on a Sunday morning between services. Dick Drury, who was the young associate pastor in charge of evangelism in our church, called me into his office. He explained that he was scheduled to speak at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston that evening but could not make it. He asked me to speak for him.

I’d been a Christian only a short time. I can’t tell you how scared I was. That afternoon I wrote a sermon and practiced it as best I could. I didn’t have time to write it out. All I could do was an outline. Then, with fear and trepidation, in front of a bunch of drug addicts and drunks, I preach my first sermon. I even did my first altar call! For a Presbyterian, I was way out of my comfort zone. However, I would not be here today, if Dick had not then, and frequently thereafter, asked me to substitute for him at the mission. [2]

There is an important lesson here: We will never become the disciples Jesus calls us to be unless and until we get out of our comfort zone and put our faith to work. We need to put what we know about Jesus into practice. We need to be doers of the word in addition to hearers of it (James 1:22-25). When we do that, we will grow as disciples of Jesus. The best way to get out of our comfort zone is with other Christians, who can love and support us.

We Need to Practice as a Team

Jesus knew his disciples would have difficulty going on this first mission trip. He knew there were going to be times in which the disciples did not know what to do next. Therefore, he sent them out two-by-two. In other words, they went out in teams.

About a decade ago, our church realized that we needed to do a better job of evangelism. We initially did what good Presbyterians do: We formed a task force. Luckily, two of the people on the task force were in sales.  They really did not like long boring meetings, but they did not mind visiting with people. Therefore, they decided that what the group needed to do was to practice evangelism rather than just talk about evangelism. The group divided itself into smaller groups of two and three and visited every visitor to our church every Sunday afternoon. Guess what” We grew!

It’s important that we take seriously the example of Jesus and the disciples. Often, we think that we will someday engage in some ministry for Jesus when we have learned enough, when we have studied enough Bible, when we’ve become better Christians, etc. If we think that way, we will never go on a mission trip! We will never disciple another person. Part of learning is doing! We all need to go on training missions for Jesus. It may be as simple as making a meal for a sick neighbor and sharing God’s love or as hard as making a trip to a third world nation in a dangerous country. Where we go does not matter as much as that we go.

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

In today’s text, Jesus commissions the disciples to go on a practice journey, and as he did so he blessed and endowed them with the power to face sickness, demons and evil. In other places, we learned that, when Jesus sent out the Seventy-Two, they returned with joy because the Spirit of God had been working in and through them on their journey (Luke 10:17).

One of the great promises we have from Jesus is that he will be with us as we go in his name (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t just apply to people who go to Third World countries, although it does. It applies to us whenever we get out of our comfort zone. The promise applies when we pray with co-workers. Wherever we go, the Spirit of Christ goes with us. In fact, one of the blessings of putting our faith into practice is the joy of the Spirit we experience on the journey.

We Seek People of Peace

Many people have problems with the advice Jesus gives near the end of today’s passage. Jesus says to the disciples that, if they come to a place where they are not welcome, they should shake the dust off their sandals and go on (Mark 6:11). In the beginning, this statement seems harsh. In other passages, Jesus more clearly spells out what he is talking about. In some places Jesus is that we should look for people of peace as we go (Luke 9-10). People who welcome the Gospel are “people of peace.” [3]

Does Jesus mean that we should only go to obviously receptive people? No. In other places, and particularly in connection with the Parable of the Sower, Jesus makes it clear that we should always be sowing the gospel of God’s love for the world (Mark 4:1-21). We should sow the Word on rocky soil and on shallow soil. We should sow the Word among the thorns and in the deep soil. We sow everywhere.

However, once we are rejected, once we learn that the soil is hard, once we know that in order to continue on we would be interfering with another person’s privacy, we go on our way. This doesn’t mean we don’t come back to that person later. This doesn’t mean that, if the subject doesn’t come up for a while and then comes up again, we don’t repeat what we said before. It just means that we don’t force ourselves on other people; when we are rejected, we go our way and seek out people of peace.

God Will Provide the Harvest

When the disciples went out and preached the gospel, they did mighty deeds of power (Mark 6:13).  In the same way, when we go out with the power of the gospel, filled with God’s love, and share that love wherever we go, God goes with us and provides a harvest. It does not matter whether we go across the street, and a neighbor comes to Christ after many years, or whether we go to the ends of the earth and an entire people group are touched by the Gospel through our work. God provides the harvest.

That first night when I preached of the Star of Hope Mission, I gave the worst altar call ever given by anyone in human history. It was so clumsy that the men just sort of stared at me for a while. Then, perhaps because he felt sorry for me, one man came forward and then another. I really don’t remember how many came forward. But a few did. Let’s just suppose it only one of those stayed sober and turn their life over to Christ. My lost afternoon and busy early evening were worth it.

When we share with others the love that Jesus shared with us on the cross, when we give up a little bit of our safety and security to go out of our comfort zone and share God’s love, we receive the blessing of Christ. Along the way, the more we practice, the better disciples we will be.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a friend who plays golf to tell him that I was much improved. I am now terrible. Before, I was horrible. There is a saying among golf teachers that golf rewards the patient. Discipleship is the same. God blesses those who just go out day after day and put their faith into practice, doing a bit better that day.

Let’s go.

Amen

[1] Both the Greek and Hebrew roots for the words we translate “faith” in English connotes both faith and trust. Trust implies an action. We don’t trust by knowing or accepting somethings as true. We trust when we put our knowledge into action. I might think I know how to safely go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I trust myself when I do it.

[2] For years I took the Sunday that was previously held by the Rev. Dr. Charles L. King, the long time and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas  and a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS).  Then and now , I regarded as a great honor to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps.

[3] Evangelists, church planters and missionaries all speak about people of peace. Fundamentally, people of peace are those who are open to the gospel, respond with curiosity when approached about Jesus, listen attentively to the gospel, and then share that word with their own family and friends. The New Testament gives many examples: the twelve disciples responded to the call of Jesus. For example, the Samaritan woman listens to Jesus, responds, and tells her friends (John4:1-30).

What Do Wisdom and Golf Have In Common?

I am a very bad golfer. This is not surprising, since I seldom play golf and never practice. While I was in High School, my brother and I played golf just often enough to learn the basics of the game. I never played in college. Since college, I have only played occasionally in tournaments for various charities or church events. Even my closest friends do not like to play with me because I am terrible. My failures as a golfer are all traceable to a series of defects: I don’t regularly think about golf, learn about golf, practice golf, or play golf.

Golf is a skill, not a science. A person has to play golf to be good at golf. A person has to play with a variety of other people, watching how they play the game. A person has to practice driving at a driving range. Most of us need lessons from someone who has played longer and is better than we are. We call these people “Golf Pro’s.” They are really good, so good that they can make a living playing and teaching people to play golf. When you do take a lesson with a Golf Pro, you don’t go into a classroom. You go onto a golf course or a driving range.

Life is a lot more complicated than golf. Therefore, it should not surprise us that the primary way Americans train their young people to face the challenges of life—sending children to school—does not work well. Going to school gives a person mental skills and head knowledge. It does not teach a person how to live. In order to learn to live successfully, we need to be mentored by someone who has lived life successfully. Ideally, that person would be a parent, grandparent, or other person who loves us deeply and is willing to put up with our foolishness and failures until we can take care of ourselves. Children especially need more than teachers. They need “Life Pro’s.”

Along the journey of life, we all need to be mentored by “Life Pro’s” from time to time. We need to play the game of life for a time with someone who has played longer than we have played, is a better player, and can show us how to play the fame of life successfully. We all need mentors: in business, in family, in child-raising, in saving for retirement, and in every other area of life.

Trial and error, as important as it can be, is really not a good way to learn how to live. The problem with trial and error is that there are a lot of errors we can make. Some of them ruin our lives for a long time or even forever. A person who repeats every foolish behavior of human history in order to learn how to live will almost certainly never attain a happy life.

Just to give two examples: it takes the average woman five years to recover from a bad marriage and divorce—if they do recover at all. Assuming there were a few unhappy years before the divorce and for a period of time after the divorce, it means that the average divorcee suffers over ten percent of her life just as a result of a bad marriage. Better to have avoided the entire experience. In our church, we have ministered to more than one young person who ended up psychologically damaged as a result of a bad drug trip. Better to avoid mind-altering drugs altogether. (I avoid politics, but this casts grave doubt upon with wisdom shown by those states that are legalizing such drugs.)

Wisdom literature, and the historic way children were raised until the modern era, were based upon this single insight: Children need to be mentored by prior generations so that they do not repeat the foolish life damaging, happiness destroying mistakes past generations learned to avoid.

 

 

Transitions: Last Words as we Cross into the Future

How many of you have ever dived off a high dive? Do you remember the first time? I am not very coordinated and a bit fearful of heights, so I do remember that first dive.  I was also a lifeguard for a lot of years, and so I remember the look on many young faces. When you teach someone to dive, they begin on the low dive, move to the intermediate dive, and then eventually learn to dive off the high dive.

When your time comes, you begin by standing in line to climb up the ladder. You don’t really want to do it, but your mother, father, or instructor says you must. You also don’t want to wimp out and be embarrassed in front of your buddies or a girl you secretly like, so you reluctantly keep going up the ladder until it is your turn. After the long climb, you reach the last rung on the ladder, and the person before you dives off (hopefully not perfectly). You slowly and carefully walk to the end of the board, look down briefly (against good advice), pace back a couple of steps for the approach, then you pause, getting up your courage. Finally, you just close your eyes and jump.

Today is my last sermon/blog as the transitional pastor of Bay Presbyterian Church. Our theme is “Bridges” or crossing over into the future God has for us. As we prepare to cross the bridge into the future , some of us may feel like we are on a metaphorical high dive. Today, I have just a few last words for the congregation and readers, as we get ready to take our collective plunge into the unknown!

The Last Words and Challenge of Moses

Deuteronomyis one of the most interesting books in the Old Testament. It is the last book of the first five book of the Bible, what we call the “Pentateuch.” It was written as the Last Will and Testament of Moses, containing his last words to Israel. Moses, if you remember, was the founder of the Jewish religion, and their deliverer who led them out of captivity in Egypt. He led Israel for  forty years as they wandered in the wilderness because of their sin. By the time they arrived on the east side of the River Jordan, he was an old man, ready to die. Furthermore, due to an incident early in their wanderings, God advised Moses that he would not enter the Promised Land. [1]

Since coming to BayPres, I have joked a kind of half-truth: Like Moses, I am not allowed to enter the new future you will soon enter. I must leave. Two weeks ago, I let you know that, like John the Baptist, my joy is complete because the preparations for the future are finished, and the church is ready to cross into its future. All that is left are a few last words as this wonderful congregations enters into a new era.

Our text comes from Deuteronomy 30:11-19. Hear the Word of God this morning from the voice of Moses:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:11-20).

We are Able

I love this passage! As the scene is set, Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River. The people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. A new day is about to arrive. Their current leader, Moses, is old and about to depart. Moses cannot enter the Promised Land with the rest of the people and soon will die. Therefore, he calls the people together and gives them some last words to guide them as they enter the Promised Land.

You see, Israel is about to experience a great change in their national life. They’re going to have a new leader, Joshua. They’re going to be in a new country with unfamiliar people. They are going to be surrounded by people with different customs and religions. Moses wants to remind them what it is they must do to experience the blessings of God in their new situation.  [2]

Moses begins by recounting what God has done, the laws God has asked them to obey, the ceremonies God wishes them to perform, and he lets them know that what God is asking them to do is not too hard for them (Deuteronomy 1-30). God is able to bless the people of Israel and will bless the people of Israel—if they remain faithful and are obedient to the way of life to which God has called them. They are able to do that God asks. Whether they will be obedient or not is a matter of the heart. If their hearts remain centered on God, then they will be empowered to obey. The same thing is true for us.

There are times when we can misunderstand the impact of grace on our lives. God forgives us, restores us, and gives us new life because of his sheer unmerited grace. [3]  This does not mean that we will no longer experience the consequences of our behavior. I can be a wonderful Christian, but if I never save for retirement I’m going to be poor when I retire. I can be deeply committed to Christ, but if I drink on the job I will still get fired sooner or later. Grace does not eliminate the need for obedience and wise living. God initiates the Christian life by grace, but we are able to make our own choices and responsible for them!

The first part of our Mission Statement as that we intend to be a people Centered on Christ. This is important! If we’re going to have the heart of God, then we need to have hearts centered on Christ.  God’s grace is the foundation of our faith. Through Christ, God has rescued us from sin and death just as he rescued Israel from captivity in Egypt. However, we would be presuming upon God’s grace if we did not change as a result of all He has done for us in Jesus Christ. We are sinners. All of us are finite. We all need grace to become the people God calls us to be and accomplish all that God would have us to do. But we are able, and we are responsible to respond to God’s grace in faithfulness.

We Must Choose

It’s an interesting historical fact that the book of Deuteronomy was discovered in the temple late in the history of the nation (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 24). They were already practically doomed to go into captivity. In addition, the book seems to have gained its importance after the captivity in Babylon, as people recognized that they had been unfaithful to God and had in fact received the judgment that Moses prophesied.

In what I think is the most dramatic part of today’s text, Moses gives the people a choice concerning their future and beseeches them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:37). In early portions of the book, Moses has already prophesied that the people will be judged if they are not faithful to God. In today’s chapter he reminds them that they are capable of remaining faithful to God. They must choose to orient their hearts toward God and be faithful to the way of life to which they are called. Moses is reminding the people of Israel that they must choose God above all else!

This is important for us as well. We must choose whether or not we are going to remain faithful to the God that has brought us to this point of new life for ourselves, for our families, and for our church. We must choose Christ daily.

The words of Moses were delivered to Israel as a people. This reminds us that we are to be Shaped in Community. I’ve had an opportunity before to make this important point: if we do not gather together as the people of God in worship and in small groups, we are unlikely to continue to choose to follow the way of Christ. Jesus called the disciples around him and taught them in a community. Moses taught the people of God in the community. We must continue to be a part of that community to which we have been called.

No one is able to choose Christ all by themselves over the long run . We need one another. The people of God needed Moses, Joshua, and Godly leadership.  Just as importantly, they needed one another. We also need one another to be Shaped in Community to be the people we are called to be. I have watched many, many people fall away from Christian community and then end up also falling away from God.

Finally, as anyone who has been married knows, when we are part of a community, we all experience the blessings and suffer the failures of that community. This is true of families, churches, and nations. We both need one another and to some degree are responsible for one another. This is why Jesus reached out to those who had fallen away from God and told the parable of the Lost Sheep. Everyone is important in a community of Christ.

Blessings are a Matter of Obedience

Often, in a kind of simplistic way, the people talk about the Old Testament is being a testament of works in the New Testament of being a testament of grace. This is true. However, we need to understand that Grace gives us a heart for God and connection to God that enables obedience. We can’t live the Christian life without grace. We also can’t live the Christian life without being willing to walk in the way of Jesus.

This week, I  read one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.  It is the story comparing those who build their lives on the rock of the Word of God and those who  build their lives on the sand of what how other people live and natural desires. The story goes like this:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

We remember the distinction between the man who built his house upon the rock in the man who built his house upon the sand. We forget that this is how Jesus introduces the story: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house upon the rock”(Matthew 7:24).  A little bit earlier, Jesus tells his disciples in the gathered crowd that he did not come to abolish the law but to complete the law (5:17).

In other words, how much of the blessings of the Christian life we experience is dependent upon how much we open our lives to the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ,  the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then actually live out the Gospel in our daily lives. The word translated “law” in the Old Testament can also be translated “instruction.” It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one. God’s rules for wise living are not rules and regulations imposed by a heavenly bureaucrat to make us do things his way or else. They are gracious gifts to us so that we might experience the abundant life. [4]

Early in my ministry with you, I mentioned that the earliest name for the Christian faith is the “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The Way we are to follow is the Way of Jesus, who showed by his life what it is to live according to the instructions of God in the way God intended in the first place. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, are a part of that Way of Jesus (I Corinthians 13:13). The fruit of the Spirit of joy, patience, kindness and self-control are a part of that that way (Galatians 5:22-23).

As a pastor, over the years, I have watched many people do harm to their own lives and the lives of their families by what I would call “presuming upon the grace of God.” These people, and many like them, are Christians, but they don’t necessarily live or act like Christians. They don’t manage their money like Christians. They don’t raise their children like Christians. They don’t conduct their family relationships like Christians. They are forgiven; but, they’re not transformed. In the end, these Christians don’t experience a quality of life any different than their next-door neighbor who has a different religion or no religion at all.

Jesus says that the wise man builds his house upon the rock of a relationship with him and of putting his words into practice daily. The wise man not only hears the words of Jesus the Messiah, but also obeys them. When we do,  we are like the man who built his house upon the rock. Our church, especially, should understand this truth: Faithfulness does not mean that we will not have problems. Human life is filled with problems. Faithfulness means that we are building our life on the rock of God’s wisdom and love for us, and we face the problems of life wisely with faith, hope, and love because of the foundation we have in Christ.

It’s a Matter of the Heart

The same God wrote the Old and New Testaments. In today’s text, God says that his commandments or not too difficult or beyond our reach. They’re not in heaven or in the depths of the sea. No, he says, the word is very it is in your mouth and in your hearts so that you may obey it.

The word of God made flesh is in the heart of every believer. What  God asks of us is not so high that we cannot reach it or so low that we cannot touch it. It is not so far away that we cannot find it.Today’s proverb for me was this from Proverbs 3:1-2, which reads:

 My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

By the grace of God, the Word is in our hearts, and will bring us blessing after blessing.

Today I leave you with these words: In a world that is constantly choosing death, choose life!

Amen

[1] Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of an act of disobedience to God during their wanderings. Instead of speaking to a rock to release water, he struck it in an act of anger against the people. This particular act of disobedience may not seem great to the reader, but it seems to have involved more. In any case, Israel felt the incident explained why Moses did not enter the Promised Land with them.

[2] My analysis of the book is based upon Peter C. Craige, “The Book of Deuteronomy” in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1976.

[3] One of the great reformation Principles is “Sola Gratia,” or “By Grace Alone.” We are not saved by good works. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Israel did not deserve to be saved from slavery Egypt, God saved them by an act of sheer mercy.

[4] The law is not an imposed thing; it reflects the way God created the world and what makes life best. Wisdom literature and the law are really one thing: The gracious gift of God to his people. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Transitions: The Beginning of the Bridge

I have a friend who once said, “It’s always hard to live between the times.” Our nation, our economy, our politics, and our church are living between the times. We talk a lot about “postmodernism.” However, what we know as “postmodernism” is probably no more than the end of the modern world. We are entering a new age in human history, but we really don’t know where we’re going!  All the churches of the world are entering this new age, and all are struggling to discern how to adapt. Here at Bay Presbyterian Church, we are entering a new era in the life of our church family. Change can be a scary, and you may feel that way about your own family, career, and friends as you try to live in today’s world!

John the Baptist & Elijah

 One of the most interesting people in the Bible is John the Baptist. To understand John, we have to go back to the Old Testament. As we studied last month, the prophets foretold the coming of a Messiah. About 400 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Malachi prophesied that, before the Messiah came, the prophet Elijah it would return (Malachi 4:5-6). To fully understand this prophesy, it will help if we  know a couple of things about Old Testament history.

First, Moses, the deliverer of Israel from Egypt and founder of the religion of Judaism, prophesied that God would eventually send a greater leader than him for God’s people. The Gospel of Matthew reveals Jesus as the One Greater than Moses. He is the New Moses that will restore the story of Israel in a completely unexpected way!

Second, although we often think of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the Jews thought of Elijah as the greatest of the prophets. [1] During the reign of the worst king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, the evil Jezebel, the prophet Elijah prophesied mightily. He confronted the false prophets of the false gods of Israel and its evil king and queen. In the process he did mighty deeds of power.

The Ministry of John

Shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, emerged. John centered his ministry near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. He was a colorful character. He wore a tunic made of camel’s hair and ate locust and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). He probably lived close to Qumran.  This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the late 1940’s. He seems to have been influenced by the Essene sect of Judaism. His ministry included baptism. The Essenes were very concerned about ritual purity and practiced baptism in a major way. Those who have been to Israel may have seen a giant baptismal pool near  Qumran where a group of Essenes lived. They were strict followers of the Jewish law, lived extraordinarily holy lives,  and felt the Messiah would return soon. [2]

John was no respecter of persons. When the Scribes and Pharisees came to see him, he called them a brood of vipers, or poisonous snakes (Matthew 3:7). As you might expect, people came from all over Jerusalem and Judea, to see this dramatic, new prophet. The common people immediately saw John’s ministry as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and Jesus confirmed their understanding (11:7-14).

The message of John was the message one would  expect of the New Elijah: The day of the Messiah is coming, and it is time to get ready! In Matthew, John tells the people that he is the one who was sent to “prepare the Way of the Lord” (3: 3). The way the people were to prepare was to repent, be baptized (or cleansed) from their sins, and be ready to welcome the Messiah with a clean heart. This is good advice for us as well.

For the last several years, our church has been preparing for a day that will soon arrive. We’ve been preparing for the time when we will be led by our new pastor. He will be moving to Bay Village late this month. Around March 1, our new pastor will be present on a daily basis, leading our congregation. We’ve already done a lot of preparation, but there’s just a little bit of preparation left to do.

A few weeks ago, we had an evening in which we talked about what we can do to welcome a new pastor. I believe the video can be found on our website, and it’s worth listening to. This morning I want to mention three things we need to remember:

  1. First, our new pastor does not know the 2,000 or so names of our members and regular visitors. It will take him a long time to remember all those names. Every time you meet our new pastor, please give him your name. Many of you have noticed that I’ve been here over a year, and I still don’t know everyone’s name on sight!
  2. Second, give the new pastor time to get established and get a sense of who we are and where we are headed. It takes time to get to know a congregation. Before you form an opinion, or make a request, give the new pastor a chance to get acquainted with the congregation. In a big church, this takes months—a year at least.
  3. Third, remember that, as hard as it is to be a new pastor, it’s even harder to be the spouse and children of a new pastor. Our new pastor’s wife and children are leaving behind their home, their schools, their friends, their existing relationships, and the church to which they are accustomed. Welcome them with open arms. Take time to get to know them! Help them make friends in our community! This is really important.

If you go onto our website, you will find additional suggestions. The bottom line is: share God’s love with our new pastor and his family just like you would with your best friend.

Part of preparation involves repentance. Before we can make Jesus our best friend, we have to repent (or turn away) from our sins. This is the first step in becoming a disciple, and it is a life-long process after we become disciples of Jesus. We need to get rid of all the things that keep us from being a child and friend of God (See, Genesis 18:16-19; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23).

Our new pastor is not God. However, there are some things we all need to remember to turn away from. Our new pastor had nothing to do with the past of our congregation. He is not like any leader of the past. We should not expect our new pastor to be like any former leader, and we should repent of any bad feelings we have against any former leader, whoever they may be. We also should not expect our new pastor to be like the leader from the past we like the best. The word “repentance” means “to turn away.” It means get healed. It means let bygones be bygones. In this context, “repent” means today is a new day and we need to make it a new day, free of the past.

If I can say a personal word: You all know that I love you. You know that I’ve been here for more than a year. I’ve heard every story anyone can hear.  The former leaders of this church were, whether you appreciate them or not, trying to do the will of God as best they knew how and were able to lead. They may not have led way we like; they may not have led the best way. But they were trying. They were human just like we are, and everyone makes mistakes. It is time to just let go and let God. God is in charge, and he can (and has) worked everything out for the good (Romans 8:28).

Every Beginning Means an Ending

You may have noticed that, unlike any sermon I’ve preached you before, we have not yet read the Scripture—and we’re almost finished! That’s because I saved the reading of the Word to the end this week. In all four Gospels, we learn about the ministry of John the Baptist. In John, we learn a new story. After Jesus began his ministry, the crowds that followed John began to dwindle. Some of John’s followers were distressed that this new guy on the block was taking away from the ministry of the old guy on the block. They came to John to complain. Here is what John said in reply:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”(John 3:27-30).

In order for Jesus to proclaim and enact the new era of human history that would begin with his life, death, and resurrection, it was necessary for John’s ministry to end. John knew this. He recognized that his job was to prepare the  way of the Lord. He knew his ministry was nearing completion. He realized that a new day was dawning, but could not fully dawn until his ministry ended. He was not sad. He was not depressed. He was not angry or resentful. He was filled with joy (John 3:29).

This reminds each one of us that there are times in our lives when we or those we love are going to go through a change and passing to a new time. This should be a time of celebration and the joy of a new beginning. Things are always changing, and the wise person learns to adapt and find joy in the past, present, and future.

I want to leave you this morning with the following: My joy is complete. It has been a great pleasure being with your church for the past fourteen months. Kathy and I have enjoyed getting to know you, and we love you dearly. When I came, however, I knew one day I would leave. The nature of transitional ministry is that you come, prepare the church for a new day, the day comes, and you leave.

Today begins a new time in my ministry with you. I won’t be in the pulpit often. From time to time, I may not even be in the city. It’s important that I make way for your new senior pastor. This is a gradual process that will last until the end of February.

Conclusion

As I close, I want to highlight a few things that are going to happen. I’m going to preach my last sermon on February 3. The following week, Jeff Jeremiah, the Stated Clerk of our denomination, is going to be our main preacher. Please be here for that day.  On February 17, John Murtha is going to share his thoughts on transitions. The last week in February, we are having a special, elder-led service as we complete our series on transitions. There are going to be other wonderful things happening during February.

The leaders of our congregation know that I’ve been teaching principles of servant leadership for the entire time I’ve been at Bay Presbyterian Church. Some of you know that I once wrote a book called, Centered Living\Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. One of my favorite chapters contains the following:

“This is the way of the wise leader: accomplish a work, and then humbly withdraw and go on to whatever task comes next.”  [3]

Jesus knew this great principle. He gave his life for us, and then went on to what came next. What came next was the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, the world-wide mission of the Apostles, and a new day of Spirit-empowered ministry lasting until now. What is coming next for our church is a new, great day of Spirit-empowered ministry as we share God’s wisdom and love with everyone we meet.

It is to the Table of the One who loves us unconditionally, and who gave His life so that we could enter a new era,  become children and friends of God, and live with him forever, that we now come.

Amen [4]

[1] The story of Elijah is told in I Kings 17-through II Kings 2. See, Paul R. House, The New American Commentary on the Old TestamentVol. 8: “I-II Kings” (Nashville, TN: Holman and Broadman, 2003), 209-250. I cannot tell the great story of Elijah in this sermon, but it is a great tale that is important to understanding John the Baptist and his ministry.

[2] The Essenes were essentially a very strict monastic version of Phariseism. They practiced baptism, obeyed a very strict dietary code, and observed the law with great scrupulousness. See, Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary“Essenes” in R. K. Harrison, ed (Chicago, Moody Press, 1957). My description is drawn from this source.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN: BookSurge Publishing 2016), 18. This book is a Christian adaptation of the Tao Te Ching and is based on a meditative lifestyle and servant leadership. The book can be purchased from Amazon. BookSurge is Amazon’s publishing arm.

[4] I want to thank Elder and Member of the Pastoral Search Committee, Stacy Windahl for her reading of the first draft of this sermon and for her insightful comments, which I have tried to incorporate into the text. Stacy Windahl, Private Email (January 10, 2019).  I also want to thank Sharon Brumagin, who is the Bay Presbyterian Church Executive Director, and who gave me a copy of a book on transitions that has been extremely useful in thinking through the transition for Bay Pres. The book is, Tom Mullins, Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015).

Transitions: Become a Star Follower

While we were gone, Kathy and I did a little traveling. Eventually, we went to Houston. On New Year’s Day, the couple we were visiting took us to a family farm west of Houston. Our friends took their car, and we took ours because we were going on to San Antonio later in the day. I should have expected this, but my friend drives a bit faster than I do. (Texas as a rule think that the term “Speed Limit” means the minimum speed you should drive.) As we got closer and closer to the vast metropolis of El Campo Texas, he was far ahead. We were headed for a farm his mother owns several miles outside of El Campo.

As we left Houston, I noted that we no longer have a map of Texas in my car. In today’s world with GPS’s, we don’t need a map very often. Our friends called us and gave us a long and complicated set of instructions, from the Interstate Highway to State Highway to County Road, and went ahead to open the gate. We didn’t need to pay that much attention to the instructions because we have our cell phones!

As we went further and further into the country-side, Kathy notified me that her GPS did not work, and we could no longer get information by phone. Of course, we thought we remembered what to do, so we went on. Unfortunately, our memories were not perfect. In addition, some friendly neighborhood young person had driven over a sign that marked one of our turns. In the end, we ended up miles out of our way. Eventually, we got back cell phone coverage, called our friends, and got new instructions. Part of these instructions involved them coming to get us!

This little trip is a metaphor for the way many of us live our lives: We don’t take along the most important road map for life we can have. If we have one, we don’t read the Bible. We don’t stop to ask God for directions until we are good and lost. Eventually, God has to mount a rescue mission.

The Visit of the Wise Men

Today, January 6, is Epiphany, the day we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men from the East to worship the Baby Jesus. The word “Epiphany” means a “revealing”. The Wise Men were the first Gentiles, that is non-Jews, to whom the Messiah was revealed. For anyone who celebrates Epiphany, it is also the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Our text is a familiar passage from the Gospel according to Matthew:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route (Matthew 2:1-12).

Let us Pray: God of Light in Whom we can find perfect guidance for our lives: Come by the power of Your Holy Spirit. Show us your will and give us the human will to accomplish your purposes for our lives. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Worship is the First Step in the Life of Faith

            When Jesus was born, far off to the east, probably near Babylon, there were Magi (star gazers, astrologists or astronomers, as we would call them), people who studied the stars, believing that the future and meaning of events could be understood in this way. [1] Because of their great learning, they often became influential, sometimes advising Persian kings. Around the years 8-6 B.C., some of these Magi saw a star in the West and deduced that it was an omen that a king had been born in Palestine, the land of the Jews.[2] They decided to travel to far off Palestine and pay homage to the newly-born King of the Jews.

At this point, we see a difference between Matthew’s day and our day and time. If we had seen such a star and thought it meant there was a new born king of the Jews in Palestine, we would have said to one another, “Let’s go see if we are correct—let’s have an experiment and see if we are right.” The Wise Men, however, did not go to Judea to test a theory; they went to worship and pay homage to a king. The ancients were different, and perhaps we need to recover some of the difference in our own lives.

The first step in the Christian life is worship. It is not the only thing: Bible Study, Prayer, Service, and other holy habits are important. But, worship is usually the first thing we do. Before we do anything else, we must, as our Purpose Statement says, Be Centered on Christ. As time goes by, we will learn that there is a lot more to the life of worship than attending church. In Romans, Paul reminds his readers:

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 Emphasis Added).

Our lives ought to be a kind of Physical, Mental, Moral, Emotional, and Spiritual worship of God. Wise living begins with recognizing God and worshiping God.

Tension with the World is Part of the Life of Faith

Not everyone was as excited as the Wise Men to discover that there was a new-born King of the Jews. King Herod the Great, for example, was a less than thrilled to hear the news, since he was not the father of a new child. Herod was an Idumean or Edomite, not a Jew, although the Roman authorities did not, in all probability, understand or make this distinction. The Jews never accepted his kingship. He was definitely not of the line of David, and any Jew of David’s line had a better claim to the throne of Israel, including Jesus.

Herod owed his kingship to his friendship with Caesar Augustus. He was called the “Great” because he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and made many other improvements in his domain, including building the lovely port of Caesarea and the Fortress Masada, which tourists visit even today. [3] At the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod was near the end of his reign, a time in which he showed increased signs of paranoia and madness. He was not above murder or persecution—even against members of his family.

The Herod’s of this earth are always with us. They are those who understand the system and know how to use it. [4]  They make powerful friends, though in reality they have no friends. They are attracted to power, and they are more than willing to do what it takes to acquire it. They are also willing to say and do whatever it takes to keep power. They are not necessarily wise, but they are shrewd—and it is their shrewdness that makes them dangerous. One of the challenges of the Christian life is learning to navigate in a world filled with big and little Herod’s.

One facet of American life is the extent to which we have become a post-Christian society. Many leaders in the media, in academia, in government, and business no longer even pretend to be Christians or support Christian faith and practice. In some cases, they are explicitly anti-Christian. This means that we, like the early Church, must be willing to bedifferent and experience the tension resulting from being outside the mainstream. In particular, we need to be willing to serve those outside our faith in love, waiting for other people to see what a difference Jesus makes. Today, more than ever, we must live our faith, not just proclaim it with words.

Once We See Jesus, We Travel a Different Path

After Herod visited with the Wise Men, he conferred with his advisors. On the basis of the Old Testament prophesy from Micah,they advised that the child was probably born in Bethlehem in Judea, a few miles down the road (See Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:5-7). Herod then sent the Wise Men to find the boy with the request that, if they found him, they should come and tell him where the boy was so he could come and worship him (Matthew 2:8). Of course, Herod has no such intention; he intended to kill the child. [5]

The Wise Men went on their way until they found the boy. They followed the star until it rested over the place where Jesus was (Matthew 2;9).  The text does not tell us exactly where the boy was when they found him, though the context indicates it might have been Bethlehem. [6] We do know that, when they found him, they worshiped him and gave him gifts: Gold symbolizing Royalty, Frankincense, symbolizing the Holy Spirit and Myrrh, symbolizing his Death. [7] Although Herod had asked the Magi to report the boy’s whereabouts to him, the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to do so. They departed and went home by a different path. We hear no more about them in the Bible.

When and if we truly experience the love of God and presence of Jesus in our lives, we can never be the same again. A person can read or hear the story of the birth and remain exactly the same as before. Each year, people do. But, a person cannot experience the birth and see the Son of God and be unchanged. A person cannot truly worship the Baby Jesus and remain unchanged. It just is not possible.Believers should always leave Christmas by “another way” (Matthew 2:12). As we leave this Christmas, and move into a new year and a new time in the life of Bay Presbyterian Church, we might ask ourselves this question, “Now that I have been to Bethlehem and seen the child, what will I do differently in 2019?”

One of the names for Jesus is the “Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). Jesus shines throughout the universe as the reflection of the glory of God, the true light that shines into every dark place in our lives. He is the light that will lead us out of those dark places not the light of his will and his joy. When we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, and are gradually changed into the image of Jesus, we too begin to shine. In this world, we do need to proclaim Christ, but we also need to reflect his glory in our lives. [8] As St. Francis said, “Share the gospel constantly, and where necessary use words.”

Conclusion

The Wise Men, like people today, lived in a time of transition. The Wise Men did not know it, but they left their home in the East just as the world was about to change forever. A new era was beginning. The ancient, pagan world was about to die, and what we know as the Judea-Christian world was being born. We also live in a time of transition. The modern world, with its materialistic presuppositions and radical individualism, is dying. What is emerging, for better or for worse, we call the post-Modern world. In our church, and in all the churches of America and the West, a new era is dawning.

When a new day comes, we have two choices: We can fight it (and many do) or we can with faith, hope, and love walk into that future. The better course is, as Henry Blackaby put it in his book Experiencing God,“Find out what God is doing and join him in it.” [9] A new year is here and a new day is coming to Bay Presbyterian Church. The best things we can do is see it, and join God in what God is going to do next.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Magi were probably wise men of Median origin found in positions of honor in Babylonian and Persian royal courts. These wise men were interpreters of the stars and dreams. See, P.A. Michlem, The Gospel According to Matthew” in Westminster Commentaries(London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1917): 9.

[2] It is impossible to identify this “Star” precisely. Halley’s Comet is reported to have appeared around the year 11- 12 B.C. See, Ulrich Luz, “Matthew 1-7” in Hermenia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress press, 2007): 105 and Douglas R. A. Hare, “Matthew” in Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching(Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993): 14. The Biblical interpretation in this blog is based on these commentaries and the one mentioned in footnote 1.

[3] See, D. J. Harrington, S. J. “Matthew” in Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Books, 1991):41,

[4]  See, Stanley Hauerwas, “Matthew” in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006): 36. Hauerwas says that Herod is the very type of many truth-denying, love-denying leaders to come.

[5] This is made plain by the so-called “Murder of the Innocents” described in Matthew 2:16-18.

[6] In the next verses we learn that Herod had all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem killed, but that does not mean that this is the place where the Magi found him. It may have been there, in Nazareth, or even in Egypt. There are legends that support several locations.

[7] See, Hare prev. cit. at 13-14.

[8] There is a lot contained in this statement. One of the primary principles of post-modernism is that all statements are bids for power. Furthermore, all such statements only reflect the grasping for power of the speaker. In such a world, it is nearly for people to accept Christ on the basis of words alone. They have to see the difference that faith makes in the lives of believers. If we do not “walk the walk” in addition to “talking the talk,” we will make to progress in sharing our faith with others. As Paul says in Philippians, we need to shine as lights into a dark world (Phil. 2:15),

[9] Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2004).

Love and the End of our Longing

One of my favorite Christmas stories comes from the book, “Love’s Endeavor/Love’s Expense.” [1] One Christmas, Eve, a Rev. Vanstone was preparing for services when he heard a noise outside the church door. It was a young alcoholic—a wasted life. He helped the young man as best he could. Later, as he waited for the final service of the day he fell to sleep. While asleep, he had a dream. A rubbish collector brought a huge pile of waste, stones, cans, waste paper, and scrap metal. He asked the pastor what he was to do because there was a face at the bottom of the waste heap. The face was the face of Christ, the Son of God. The dream symbolized the love of God sitting under our lives redeeming all the waste and loss we create by sin.

Our theme this Christmas is, “What is Next?” Life is not a sermon series. Sermon series come to an end. In real life, each moment, a “Next” arrives and a new “What Next” emerges. We always wonder what is coming next.  This morning, we celebrate the ultimate answer to the ultimate “What’s Next?” What’s next is the love of Jesus the Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

Today we celebrate that God’s self-giving love is the final end of our deepest longings. Having been a pastor for a long time, it is remarkable to me how important love is. Many emotional and moral problems that adults have in later life stem either from a lack of love or a perceived lack of love as children. The universe seems to have been created by God with a deep relationality that holds within itself the potential for love. Human beings are wired for love. We will never find true happiness until we find that love that will not let us go.

The Birth of the Messiah.

Our text comes at an important moment in Isaiah. It comes as God’s judgment moves to mercy in the life of God’s people. Listen together for the Word of God from Isaiah, Chapter 40, verses 28-31:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
     but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint
.

Dear Lord and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, come in our hearing and our meditation to give us faith, hope and love.Let the words from scripture be words of our hearts as Your Word convicts us, converts us, and makes us truly yours. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Future is Always Unknown

Wondering about the future is a part of human life. We are born wishing we could know the future. All children love to try to guess what is under the Christmas tree. Some months ago, we found out that we are going to be grandparents. We are currently busy guessing the gender of our new grandbaby to be. It used to hard to know the sex of a baby. Except for wives’ tales, like girls are carried higher than boys,” there was no way to know. With the advent of “Ultrasound” and other tests, all this changed. Now there is no guessing unless you want to guess, which our children so far do. Kathy and I always guessed, and I was never right, not once. This time, I am restraining myself because I am sure I will be wrong.

Other than wives’ tales, Mary and Joseph had no scientific way of knowing for certain that Mary was going to have a son. (Although, the advice of angels is usually pretty accurate!) They had some idea when the baby would be born, enough to know it was soon when they started out for Bethlehem. In fact, it may be that Mary went with Joseph because they suspected the baby would come while he was away on family business. [2]You can bet that, as they made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, they wondered, “What will happen next?”  They did not know the future. They had to walk to Bethlehem by faith trusting God for their uncertain future.

Most of the time, we have no choice but to trust God for the future. The birth of children is one of those times. No marriage is ever the same once children are born. We can wonderthat is next. We can planfor what is next. We can hopefor what is next. But, we cannot know for certainwhat is next until the time comes. Raising children (and especially teenagers) is an opportunity to wait upon the Lord while asking, “What comes next?” Life is one big wait for the future to be unfolded.

We Trust God for the Future

I am a planner, and I like to plan what is coming. I have, however, learned that no one can possibly know for sure what is coming next. In this life, we cannot live by sight (knowing); we have to live by faith (trusting). Since “What Comes Next?” is a perennial question of human life, if we don’t trust in the Ultimate Love of God, we will always be filled with worry. The future is simply not under our control. We have to walk by faith not by sight. The “faith” we need is hard when our prayers are not answered according to our timetable or exactly in the way we hope and imagine.

Mary and Joseph were in such a situation as they walked toward Bethlehem just before the first Christmas Eve so long ago. As they walked towards Bethlehem on December 23, 0000, they must have been wondering, “When will the baby be born?” “Will the delivery be easy or hard” “Will the baby be healthy?” “Will it turn out that the angel was right, and our Son will be the Messiah?” You can go on and on.  Mary and Joseph had many questions. They, like us, wondered, “What’s Next?” But, because they were believers, and because they knew that God is faithful, so they walked with hope towards Bethlehem.

Every moment of our lives is an uncertain moment.We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We are often concerned about the future. We are concerned about the economy, the stock market, jobs, the President, the Congress, the Courts, and especially the Cleveland Browns! There are always hundreds and thousands of things for us to worry and wonder about. Recently, the stock market has been declining just as I am about to reenter retirement. No one knows how far it will fall. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to either trust God or worry.

In the midst of all of our wondering’s in worrying’s,” it’s a good idea to remember that those who wait upon the Lord will be given the strength and the wisdom to meet the demands of the future (Isaiah 40:31). In every area of life, we have to wait and trust God for the future.

Waiting on God for the Future

Joseph waited on and trusted God for the future. As he walked towards Bethlehem, he had no idea Herod would try to kill his baby.  He had no idea that his family was not going back to Nazareth, but instead he was going to flee to Egypt for a long time. He had no idea that he would leave his wife a widow. He had no idea that his first son would die young and leave Mary without the comfort of an oldest son to care for her. We don’t know all of what was going to Joseph’s mind as they traveled south to Bethlehem. What we do know is that Joseph and Mary were waiting on God and trusting that God was loving and faithful. We are no different.

Every December, I read the end of Proverbsaround Christmas. Many proverbs are about planning and the limits of planning. This week, I noticed something. One ofthe proverbs for this week goes like this, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps”(Proverbs 16:9) This is so true! We all have hopes, dreams, plans, and the like; however, because we cannot know what will happen tomorrow, we must have faith and hope in the love of God. God gave us minds and imagination. It is important that we use them.

We need to plan. But, we do not control the future. We can only respond by living wisely, working hard, and having faith in the love of God as we wait for the future to unfold. As we wait, we can know that the God of love will give us the strength to rise up and meet the future like eagles. We may be young or old, strong or weak, in every situation, God will give us the energy and power to rise up and meet what is next. [3]

Loving Others as we Wait on God

One reason our culture experiences so much hopelessness is that we have lost our transcendent hope—a hope not built on human ingenuity or human work but upon the grace of One who loves us and who understands our weakness. We have lost the hope that comes from waiting on God. I am pretty sure that our politics would be less divisive and our business and economics less grasping if we really and truly trusted that God would take care of us whether our party wins, whether or not we get that new job, and whether or not we get this thing we think we want or need.

You see, Faith and Hope are completed in love. John tells us that, “God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have Eternal Life” (John 3:16). The birth Mary and Joseph received, and which we celebrate tomorrow, was a gift of Divine Love to the whole world. All the Christmas Trees, Christmas Parties, Christmas Presents, and Christmas Memories of this and every Christmas are but a small reflection of the love that God poured out on the world on that first Christmas.

This is where I must make a confession. Kathy and I are hooked on Hallmark Christmas movies. Although the plots are similar, but it is always a sentimental love story, although they’ve taken most of Christ out of Christmas in the stories, Story still reflect that love that God shown on the Christmas Eve so long ago. A love so great that it would die on a cross for the beloved came in human form. The world can deny his divinity, but it cannot escape his love. That great love changed and continues to change everything, even among those who deny him.

The greatest thing about faith and hope is that they free us to love others. We are free from the anxiety of thinking that the outcome of our lives is totally up to us. We can relax, enjoy life, do our part (of course), all with love for others. Jesus could love other people unconditionally because of his uninterrupted fellowship with God that freed him from the fears and anxieties that warp our lives. We can love others because God loves us, and can be trusted to give us the deepest desires of our hearts in every circumstance.

Conclusion

Tomorrow night, we come together to celebrate the Manger. It is at the Manger that we find the ultimate answer to all of our questions and the ultimate end of our waiting. What’s Next this week is the birth of a baby—God’s gift of love—whose life changes the world and us, if only we hear his call and follow Him. We wait in faith with hope and love, because “Love has Come.”

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor/Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God(London, ENG: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), 71.

[2] Robert H. Stein, “Luke” in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture Vol. 24 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992), 103-111. Ordinarily, Mary would not have been required to go with Joseph to be registered to pay taxes, though there were some exceptions to the general rule. Joseph probably took her because of the prejudice against her in Nazareth or because she was due and he wanted to be present for the birth. of the reasons.

[3] Waiting for God does not mean being passive. We must work, plan, and act while we are waiting. While on the grace of God can bring us the future we hope for, we still must work for it. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centering Leading; The Way of Light and Love(San Antonio, TX: Book Surge, 2016). The concept of active waiting is inherent in wisdom.

PS: Kathy and I want to wish all of our friends a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Year’s!

Longing for Leadership

The subject of leadership increased in importance during the late 20thcentury. In the aftermath of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and many national scandals and failures, hundreds of books have been written on leadership. In the church, the scandals of the recent past and the decline of many congregations resulted in hundreds of books on church leadership. Today, every year there are more books written on leadership than any leader could possibly read! Did we just discover a new interest or is there something wrong with our society that we are so focused on leadership!

Some people are born leaders. Others struggle. Many times, the best leaders are people who have labored in obscurity for a long time, failed, and finally become the leader they are capable of being. Abraham Lincoln is an interesting case in point. During his life, he was not respected as a leader. He was not handsome. He had a high-pitched, annoying voice. He had a habit of telling jokes during cabinet meetings that many cabinet officers found offensive. He was vacillating a good bit of the time. His life involved a lot of failure.

A common list of the failures of Abraham Lincoln contains the following:

  • 1831 – Lost his job
  • 1832 – Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833 – Failed in business
  • 1836 – Had nervous breakdown
  • 1838 – Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843 – Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846 – Elected to Congress (success) but a bid for reelection
  • 1849 – Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854 – Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856 – Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858 – Again defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860 – Elected President (success) [1]

When Lincoln died, Edwin Stanton looked down at has body and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” His commitment to the Union, freeing of the slaves, his willingness to suffer for the nation, and gentleness with people had made of him the greatest of our national leaders.

A Prophetic Longing

Our theme for Advent this year is, “Longing for What’s Next.” This morning, our meditation is on the theme, “Longing for Leadership.”  Our text is from the prophet Isaiah. The early church valued Isaiah because it contains a foreshadowing of the birth, character, ministry, and sacrificial death of Jesus the Messiah. As the early church read Isaiah, it saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the promise God had made to David that he would never fail to have an heir on the throne of Israel (9:7; 11:10). Let’s read together God’s word from Isiah 11, verse 1-6:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
     and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them
(Isaiah 11:1-6).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, King of Heaven, Lord of Hosts: Come to us this morning by the power of your Holy Spirit that we may understand the kind of leadership that pleases you and become such leaders in our families, businesses, schools, clubs, friendships, and other places we minister your grace. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Leader We Long For

 The Prophet Isaiah lived in the times of two of the best kings of Israel and two of the worst. The prophesies of the historical Isaiah covers the period from the reign of King Uzziah (791-740 B.C.), the reign of King Jotham (750-732 B.C.), King Ahaz (736-716 B.C.), and King Hezekiah (725-687 B.C.). Uzziah and Hezekiah were good kings, but Ahaz and Jotham were not. Isaiah 11 was probably written sometime during the disappointing reign of Ahaz. [2] The prophet was understandably concerned about the future of his nation and about the quality of its leadership. Even Uzziah and Hezekiah, as good as they were, were not perfect leaders. They made mistakes.

As Isaiah thought and prayed about the situation, God revealed that what was needed was not better leaders of the kind that Israel had already had, but a new and different kind of leader. Such leadership would be Spirit-filled, loving and caring for people, wise, knowledgeable about the world and about the ways of God, insightful about the motives of people and the potential of situations, just, and righteous. Here are just a few of the Messianic descriptions of Godly leadership Isaiah contains:

  • The Messiah will be a wonderful counselor, a Mighty God, a Prince of Peace, an Eternal King, whose kingdom will not end (9:6-7).
  • The Messiah will be filled with the Holy Spirit, respect and fear God, delight in God, and have supernatural, Godly insight and wisdom (11:2-8).
  • The Messiah will be just and righteous to an extraordinary degree (32:1).
  • The Messiah will be a liberator, who will free God’s people from captivity (41:2-4).
  • The Messiah will be the Servant of the LORD, filled with God’s love and gentleness, he will not even break a reed without cause and will patiently bring about God’s kingdom of peace (42:14).
  • The Messiah will be the suffering servant of God who will liberate people from the burden of their sin and spiritual brokenness (53:4-6).

From the time of Isaiahforward, the people of Israel longed for that new kind of leadership. Over time, the vision of Isaiah and other prophets resulted in a hope for a Spirit-filled leader the prophets called, the “Messiah,” or “The Anointed One.” [3] By the time of Jesus, this hope was fully worked out in the minds of most Jews. Unfortunately, the way they worked it out was not correct. They made of the Messiah just another King David, only more moral and without some of David’s most serious shortcomings. They lost the fact that this king was so unusual that his leadership could not be contained in any single human being. Only the Son of God could be such a leader.

Over the years, I have come to realize that too often pastors, church professionals, Sessions, and church members want church leaders who model the leadership style of their favorite leaders in business, government, the military, and other areas. The problem is that secular leaders always disappoint, and church leaders, who are just like secular leaders but nicer, are bound to disappoint us as well.

Alternatively, we want leaders who are wise. Sometimes the church can exalt a leader who demonstrates a kind of otherworldly foolishness. I was visiting this week about a nationally recognized leader who goes around giving advice to young people that is, frankly, silly. At fifteen, a young person may celebrate that advice. Years later that same young person will leave the Christian Faith on the theory that Christianity is foolish and supports foolishness. Christian leaders need to demonstrate a wisdom that is greater than human wisdom, not a wisdom that is, in fact, silliness.

An important thing to remember is that God never gives a church or society better leaders than they want and deserve. Leaders reflect the society that creates them. If we want impossible things from our leaders, then we will get leaders who promise impossible things. This is true in business, in government, and in the church as well.

The Unexpected Leader We Receive

We should yearn for better leadership. At the same time, we have to realize that no human being is capable of satisfying our deepest longings. Even the most Spirit-filled leaders, even the most caring leaders, even the wisest leaders make mistakes. If we get into our minds the idea that our leaders will not be fallen, limited human beings, who make mistakes and fall short just like we do, we will always be disappointed. More importantly, we will make foolish decisions about our leaders seeking for a perfection that no one can possibly achieve.

In the end, we will not make real progress in Christian leadership unless and until the transcendent example of Christ forms in our hearts an ideal for which we strive. The leadership we long for can only be found, and our longing satisfied, in Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Only Immanuel, God with us, could possibly fulfill the human desire for better leadership. Because of this, we need to remember our human leaders are not Jesus.

The last few election years have been times of tension and conflict. I wonder sometimes if we don’t put too much importance our elections. In fact, I wonder if our focus on politics is an indication of a lack of trust in God and a foolish hope for a kind of leader that does not and cannot exist in fallen, sinful, human history.  During the 2016 election, I wrote the following mediation:

One thing most of us long for is a world in which we have better, wiser, more ethical, godlier, and more caring leadership. This longing for better leaders cannot be completely fulfilled except by Christ. All human leaders fail. All human leaders fall short of our expectations. All human leaders are like us: they are flawed, finite human beings. Therefore, we can come to expect too much from them. Only God can give us the leadership we desire in the depths of our hearts. Only Christ can give us the self-giving, servant leadership for which our spirits made in the image of God long. Only the Spirit can help us come closer to being such leaders.

Christians can and should be in the forefront of demanding and seeking good leadership from ourselves and those who lead us. One strength of faith is that it provides an unchanging and humanly unreachable moral goal in all our striving, including our striving to be good leaders. This strength can become a weakness unless it is coupled with grace. [4]

This is an important time. Our church is about to elect a new pastor. The success or failure of our church will depend to a certain degree upon that person. On the other hand, we can expect too much. Our new pastor will be a human being. He will have strengths and weaknesses. He will have good days and bad days. He will make good decisions and not-so-good decisions. That is the way of human leadership. There are no perfect human leaders. Only Jesus is the perfect leader. The rest of us are fallen and flawed.

The Session has dedicated next week to prayer and fasting. There are going to be opportunities each day for you to come to the church and pray for the decision we will make next week. Please take some time to pray or fast in some way, giving up something for the week as we pray for our new pastor. In addition, please take the time to come to the church and pray in the prayer room. How can we pray?

  • First, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and our new pastor in a mighty way (see, Isaiah 41:2-4).
  • Second, we can pray that we and our new pastor will be filled with the love of God, and will be a selfless, servants to those around us (Isaiah 53).
  • Third, we can pray that we and our new pastor will have that hidden wisdom of which the Apostle Paul speaks (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). We can pray that he and we will be able to see beneath the surface to the true causes of things and situations (Isaiah 3-4).

Conclusion

This morning is Communion Sunday at Bay Presbyterian Church. Communion is a reminder that, when the Messiah came, he was so much different than what everyone expected that his own people rejected him. He was submitted to God and did not always please people. He was filled with a kind and unusual wisdom that did always give people what they wanted. He emptied himself of pride and self-seeking and demanded that both he and those who followed him take up a cross.

It’s at the cross, and at the table of the One who went to the cross for our sins that we see revealed the deepest and most important kind of leadership for which we long—the leadership of the Living God at work in human hearts. Crucified on a cross, Jesus looked to be a weak and defeated leader. But it wasn’t weakness that kept Him on the cross, it was strength– and a kind of leadership the world had never seen before.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The internet is filled with such lists. While the listing of the failures of Lincoln may be overdone, the reality is that he experienced failure. See https://www.school-for-champions.com/history/lincoln_failures.htm#.W8tj6BNKiGgfor one such list. Lincoln’s leadership was not recognized during his life. Only at his death, was his true greatness recognized, especially by the elites of his day.

[2] See, Gary V. Smith, “Isaiah 1-39” in The New American Commentary(Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007), 233ff. Most likely this section is related to the time period of Isaiah 7:14 (“A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son”). The reign of Ahaz had been disappointing to the prophet and many other religious Jews. In such times, there is a longing for wholesome, renewing leadership.

[3] The Hebrew term “Messiah” is “Christ” in Greek. In English, the translation for Christ is “Anointed One.”

[4] The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi in his book, Science, Faith and Societyspeaks of the frequent moral inversion of the modern world, especially in socialistic societies. The moral ideal of Christianity cut free from a recognition of human sinfulness, creates in modern (and even more alarmingly, postmodern) people a rejection of present human society and a desire for a perfect society cut free from a realization of human limitations. This enables such people to commit horrible injustices in the search for a perfect society, as has been experienced in Russia, China, Cambodia, Germany, and other places. See, Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of Scientific Inquiry. 2nd ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

What is Next? Longing for a Word from God

St. Augustine is one of the most important figures in Christian history. Although he died over 1500 years ago, he was, in many ways, the first modern, or even postmodern, person. He grew up in a decadent time, and lived to see the fall of Rome. His mother was a devout Christian. His father was a pagan. Augustine’s life as a young man was characterized by loose living and a search for answers to life’s basic questions. He followed various philosophies, only to become disillusioned. He experimented with various religions.

Around the year 386 A.D., Augustine was teaching rhetoric in Milan and heard the eloquent preaching of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Over time, the Bishop’s preaching led Augustine to a new understanding of the Bible and Christian Faith. Sometime in the year 386, while outdoors in a garden, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, the words of which were, “Pick up and read.”

Realizing that the song might be a command from God to read the Scriptures, he located a Bible, opened it, and read the first passage he saw, words from Romans: “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh”(Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine had received a personal word and revelation from God. He went on to become a priest, a bishop, a great theologian, and the founder of the Augustinian Order. Later, reflecting on this experience, Augustine wrote his famous prayer: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. [1] 

Today, we are talking about our need for a word from God for our lives.

The Word of God from Isaiah

For the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at a selections  from the Isaiah that are important for Christian faith and understanding what God was doing in Jesus Christ. Isaiah is the most important of the Old Testament prophets. Augustine himself was told by Abrose that he should read the book. The only reason he did not as a new Christian was the complexity of the book makes it difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the early Christian church, and Augustine, saw in Isaiah the clearest picture of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant, revealed in Christ. This morning we’re going to be looking at the call of Isaiah. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from Isaiah chapter 6 verses one through eight:

 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”(Isaiah 6:1-8).

Let us pray:God of Wisdom, who has spoken to us by the prophets, by the apostles, and most definitely, through the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, please come to us this morning and open our hearts for your Word to us. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

Isaiah’s Story

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Isaiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah lived around the year 750 B.C. His ministry began, as today’s text says, in the last year of King Uzziah, who was a good king who came to a bad end. In his later years, God judged Uzziah for his pride and overreaching. By the time Isaiah began to write, it was clear that Judah and Israel were decaying and that Assyria was the emerging world power. In 731 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and Judah was directly threatened. At this pivotal moment of Middle Eastern history, God called Isaiah to be a prophet.

If you’ve read Isaiah, or studied the book, you almost certainly have been struck by some facts. First, Isaiah, with Ezekiel and Jeremiah is a major prophet. The book is long and complex, just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel are long and complex. Second, Isaiah contains some of the most beautiful literature and poetry in the Old Testament. Third, and this is not so obvious, Isaiah is deeply influenced by Old Testament wisdom literature. The book is filled with wisdom from God.

We don’t know a lot about Isaiah, but we do know that he was both a great man of God and a great literary artist. We know that Isaiah was uniquely gifted with a clear vision of who Messiah would be, and what the Messiah would be like. It is in Isaiah that we learn that the Messiah is not going to be so much a conquering hero as a Suffering Servant. In Isaiah, we learn that the Messiah is not going to be a man of violence, but a man of peace. In Isaiah, we learn that the Messiah is not going to be so much of man of action, as a man of wisdom. In Isaiah, we learn the Messiah will be God with us, and not just another human being.

In today’s text, we see a young man, probably a priest, at the very beginning of his career. One day, he received a vision of the living God (Isaiah 6:1). In all probability, Isaiah was praying for a word from God about the condition of his country. In the midst of his prayers and worries, his thoughts and meditations, God appeared. Amidst the decay of his own society, in the midst of the death of his own people, at the time of the death a king, Isaiah received a vision of God high and lifted up, lifted up above all the problems and perplexities of our world, ruling in wisdom, power and love.

Many years ago, the author J.B. Phillips wrote a book called, Your God is Too Small. [2] Sometimes, we think of God as if he were a little old man far beyond his best years, without the capacity or the ability to really interfere in our lives or the world for the good. We think of God is a little bit like George Burns in the movie, “Oh God.” – a bumbling old man who is more or less out of it. [3] This is not the God of the Bible nor the God of Isaiah!

The God of the Bible is filled with glory, wise beyond our understanding, powerful beyond our imagination, good beyond our ability to comprehend, and loving beyond any possible human imitation. The God of the Bible sits on the very throne of heaven. Sometimes, God may seem not to be in control, but God  is always deeply in control of events. The God of the Bible is surrounded by angels and archangels and rules the universe and human history with endless wisdom, power, and love.

If you are like me, when times are tough or difficulties arise, I often forget this great truth: The God of the Bible is in control of history and of our lives. God loves us and will care for us, no matter what. God is never too small for the problems of our life. In fact, God is bigger than any problem we can have now or in the future. We can trust God in every circumstance. If there is anything we can get from this passage it that we have a big God.

Mary’s Story

This is the first Sunday of Advent. Often, we begin Advent with another message from God. One day, more than 700 years after Isaiah’s vision, a young woman in Nazareth was visited by one of those Seraphim who surround the throne of God. [4] She was not a scholar. She was not a priest. She was not from a wealthy or powerful family. She was not highly educated. She was not old and experienced. She was a girl about fifteen or sixteen years old. She was a Jew, and as a Jew she had waited for many years in hopes that the Messiah would come. She had been to the synagogue many times and heard the words of Isaiahthat one day that would come a son of David, the Prince of Peace, and everlasting God, the person who would save her nation and rule with wisdom and justice. I’m pretty sure that Mary never thought one moment that she would have any part in the story other than a person it would be rescued with everyone else.

As she was going about her daily life, another angel, this time Gabriel, which means “One Who Stands in the Presence of God,” appeared to her. He began with a strange greeting: “Hail to you most favored one” (Luke 2:28). Mary had no idea what to think of this. She had no inkling that an angel would ever appear to her, and she was afraid (vv. 29-30). You see, peasant girls in ancient Israel did not expect to get a personal message from God.

The angel went on to tell Mary that she should not be afraid, indeed she was honored, because the Spirit of the Lord was going to come upon her and she was going to be the mother of the Messiah (vv. 30-33). From Mary’s perspective, this was impossible (v. 34). Nevertheless, after the angel explained what was going to happen to her Mary simply said, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden” (or servant) (v.38).

Our Story

The stories of Isaiah revelation and of Mary have real importance for us. Here are a few things we can take from these stories about our own relationship with God:

  • God appears to those how are seeking God. Both Isaiah and Mary were people of faith. Both were devout. While God does sometimes appear to unbelievers, most of the time he appears to those who are already seeking God in faith.
  • God appears to humble hearts. Both Mary and Isaiah were awestruck by their revelations. They did not feel worthy and they made that known to by their response to the revelation they received. God most often reveals himself to the lowly of heart who truly depend upon God and not upon their own wisdom.
  • God appears to those convicted of their own sin. The scene in Isaiah where a hot coal touches the lips of the prophet is a scene of cleansing and the burning away of all that separates the recipient of the prophecy from God (Isaiah 6:5-6). Conviction of sin and repentance from it are important. This does not mean that we’re not still sinners. It means that we know were sinners and are repentant.
  • God appears to those willing to respond to God. When Isaiah responds to God, “Here I am, send me!”(6: 8), and when Mary responds to God, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord”(Luke 1:38), they are expressing a willingness to follow God where God leads.
  • Finally, God appears to those who are willing to suffer for God. Just after the passage we read this morning, God reveals to Isaiah that, although he is going to prophesy to the people of Israel, they are not going to listen (Isaiah 6:9-13). Mary was going to be slandered and thought ill of because she was going to be an unwed mother. Her betrothed, Joseph, was going to doubt her truthfulness. She was even going to live long enough to see her firstborn son die a terrible death. This reveals something that we don’t want to hear but need to know: God normally reveals himself to those who are willing to do God’s will and accept any resulting suffering.

Conclusion

The book of Hebrews begins with one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. Here’s what the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. And, after he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:1-3).

At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that, although God will speak to each one of us at one time or another and ask us to do one thing or another, we have already received the most important word of all from God. He has sent us Jesus. In the manger, we see the one who created the world by his wisdom who redeemed us by his grace. That is enough.

You probably have a story like this in Ohio, but in the South we have a story to go something like this: Once, there was a great hurricane down in Louisiana. A poor Cajun was in the floodplain. The water rose and rose until the Cajun was forced to crawl  onto the top of his little shack to keep from drowning. He began to pray that God would save him. In a little while,  a family came by swimming  by together as a group. It looked terribly unsafe. A few minutes later, a small fishing boat, old and leaking, came by with the person in it. It looked terribly unsafe. He continued to pray, and a helicopter flew over, but the Cajun and was afraid of heights. Finally, the waters covered the house, and he drowned. He went to heaven and appeared before God, angry and wet. Immediately, he said, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “I sent a family, and you didn’t jump in with them. I sent a boat and you wouldn’t get in. I sent a helicopter, and you wouldn’t wave it down. What more could I do?”

Sometimes, we are like that Cajun.

In my earlier years, I often prayed that God would reveal to me a path to ministry. What I learned was that God would never reveal himself to me until I was willing to respond in faith. The same is true today. We are not really listeningfor a word from God until we are willing to respondto God and do what he asks us to do. We should be thankful for the example of Mary and Isaiah: They heard and obeyed.

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Midwest Augustinians, “Conversion of St. Augustine “ https://www.midwestaugustinians.org/conversion-of-st-augustine/(downloaded November 27, 2018). The quote is from the Confessions of St. Augustine.
[2] J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small(New York, New York 1952, Touchstone Edition, 2004).
[3] “O God,” Dir. Carl Reiner. Wr. Larry Gelbart, Avery Corman, Starring John Denver, George Burns, Teri Garr (19777).
[4] Gabriel, with Michael and Raphael, are archangels or seraphim, who are variously described in Scripture and non-canonical works. See, Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael www.catholicism.org(downloaded December 1, 2018).