All posts by ChrisScruggs

Chris Scruggs is a retired Presbyterian pastor and attorney. Chris is the author of four books on Christian life, wisdom, and discipleship, Most recently, "Crisis of Discipleship," and is working on a fifth on political theology and philosophy. He authors the blog "Path of Life."

Lesson 3: A Discipler has a Story To Tell

IMG_0089Once again, I am a bit late because of the Special 4th of July post. This is Lesson Three of the training manual Kathy and I are writing. We would very much enjoy any comments for improvements and corrections. We will be teaching this training program for 26 weeks this next year. Please help us by subscribing to this blog, reading each entry, and getting your friends to do so as well. All Blogs deal with the subject of how to live wisely a life of love for others.

Copyright 2015, Chris and Kathy Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Jesus came bearing witness to his relationship with the Father. Jesus’ disciples went into the world bearing witness to their experience of the crucified and risen Christ. The four Gospels are essentially remembrances of the story of the disciples personal relationship with Jesus. One reason we must read our Bibles, and particularly the Gospels, is that we need to remember and be able to tell the stories of Jesus. One reason that Disciplers are asked to memorize Bible stories is so that we can tell them to others. However, there is more to disciple making than telling stories from the Bible. We must be able to tell our own story of what God has meant to us.

The Apostle Paul was able to tell his story to people in order to bring them to Christ. His testimony is recorded in Acts and again in Galatians. In Acts, Paul tells his story at length to his fellow Jews. Here is the story as Paul tells it:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.  “What shall I do, Lord?” I asked. “Get up,” the Lord said, “and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. “Quick!” he said. “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.” “Lord,” I replied, “these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles”
(Acts 22:1-21).

This famous testimony of Paul’s has three features that any good testimony has:

  1. It tells us what kind of a person Paul was before he became a Christian.
  2. It tells us how Paul became a Christian.
  3. It tells us what happened as a result of Paul becoming a Christian.

Before Paul became a Christian, Paul was a persecutor of Christians. He hated Christ and the Christian faith. He met Christ on the Road to Damascus on his way to persecute the Christians in that city. As a result of his conversion, Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles. All good testimonies have these three characteristics:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ
  2. How I came to Christ
  3. What a difference it has made in my life.

IMG_0400Take a moment and write out your testimony in these three categories:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ.
  1. How I came to Christ
  1. What a difference it has made in my life.

Dramatic and Nurtured Testimonies

Some Christians are hesitant to share their story with others because they feel it is not good enough, powerful enough, dramatic enough, or whatever. This is a big mistake. In our marriage, Chris has a dramatic testimony of how God came into his life. Kathy, on the other hand, has been a Christian almost all of her life. It is very important, therefore to remember that there are as many different testimonies as there are persons and there is more than one type of testimony.

People sometimes talk about the difference between dramatic conversions and nurtured conversions. A dramatic conversion usually occurs when someone has been far from God and is brought close to God in a single dramatic event or series of events. A nurtured conversion usually involves a parent, grandparent, or some other significant person who gradually nurtured the believer as a Christian. Once again, In Chris’ case, he was far from God, not really looking for God, when he suffered a series of failures and losses. At an important moment, a young co-worker reached out and invited him to a Bible study. Over several months the members of this Bible study nurtured him until he came to believe in Christ in a dramatic moment of commitment. Kathy grew up in a Christian family, was nurtured as a Christian by her parents, accepted Christ at an early age. She can, however, remember a time at a Christian camp when she drew near to God.

Think about your Christian walk. Then answer the following questions:

  1. What elements of nurture do you see?
  1. What elements of dramatic commitment do you see?
  1. How can you put these two elements together?

God’s Continuing Work in Your Life

People love to hear the story of who someone came to Christ. These stories are very important. However, our conversion story is not our only testimony. Since the time we came to believe in God and came close to Christ, other things have happened to us. Everyone has faced times of challenge, times of doubt, times of social pressure and the like. One of the most powerful testimonies any Christian can give to another person is to tell a story of a struggle in your life that is similar to a struggle they are having in their life. Once again, people like to hear stories of what God has been doing in the life of people they know are Christians. Once again, these stories do not have to be dramatic. In fact, sometimes they are more powerful if they are not dramatic.

For example, suppose that you were let go from a job and it took a long time to find a new one. Suppose you prayed, reached out to other Christians, and went to a Christian ministry that helps people find new jobs. Then, after several months of looking, you found a new job! That testimony would mean a lot to a person who was just laid off. Suppose you have had a struggle in your marriage or in parenting where you prayed and sensed God’s presence in solving the problem. That testimony would be powerful to someone who is struggling in his or her marriage or with a child.

We might call these kind of testimonies “Continuing Testimonies.” God continues to work in our lives day by day after we are Christians forming us into the people he wants us to be. This forming process, both pleasant and unpleasant is part of our testimony. It is also an important witness to what God can do in the life of ordinary people like us.

Think about times in your Christian walk when you felt God at work. Jot down some notes below about how you might describe it to another person:

Putting It All Together

We ask every person to prepare a three or minute testimony. If you wrote it out, that would be about one typed page, double-spaced in length. Your testimony needs to be unique to you. It needs to be your story. Of course, it needs to be factually correct. It also needs to be constructed so as to have all the elements of a good testimony:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ
  2. How I came to Christ
  3. What a difference it has made in my life.

If it is a vignette from your past, some moment when God acted in your life in a special way, then the three elements might look like this:

  1. The problem I faced in my Christian walk.
  2. How God entered my life in my circumstances
  3. What a difference it has made in my life.

Take time now to write out   your testimony.






Honoring Dad: A Special 4th of July Post

IMG_0137Friday, we were in Fredericksburg, Texas to dedicate a plaque to my Dad and Granddad on the wall of the Nimitz/Pacific War Museum. Set out below is approximately what I said.

“I am a pastor, and so I get to teach Psalms periodically at our church. People who have never studied Psalms are often amazed at how many Psalms are simple retellings of the history of Israel. (See for example, Psalm 78). The Jewish people knew from bitter experience the importance of remembering the past.

In Psalm 77 the psalmist says the following:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11-12).

One of the frequent teachings of Scripture is this: The people of God are inclined to forget the mighty acts of God and his merciful provision and thereby bring judgment upon themselves and their societies. This is a principle with secular as well as spiritual application. When a people forget what has been done for them by prior generations a curious pride and foolishness—a taking for granted of blessings—develops. The result is misery. We live in a time when rediscovering the importance of honoring the past and what has been done for us is an important priority.

There are a lot of men and women honored on these walls. FullSizeRenderWe have come to honor two of them, who happen to be Tim’s and my father and grandfather. According to family lore, Dad joined up first being about eighteen years old. My grandfather, who was too young for World War I and forty years old when the war broke out, followed later. Apparently, he did not want to stay home while his eldest son fought.

My grandfather died before Tim and I were born. We know that he served in four campaigns in the Pacific and earned a Purple Heart. He died at about 49 with shrapnel still in his body. My father did not like to talk about the war. I have only a few memories of things that he said. After the war my father met my mother and served as an FBI agent until retirement. After he retired he was a city councilman and mayor of Springfield, Missouri. He spent all his adult life serving his country and community. He did not like violence, although he had two occupations, soldier and FBI agent, where there were always the danger of violence. In the midst of this, he was a peaceful guy.

Picture1I believe my grandfather was a hero and probably knew it. My father on the other hand never thought of himself as a hero. Not long ago, on The Military History Channel there was a program concerning Iwo Jima. They returned a number of survivors to the island. When the commentator described them as hero’s to a man they declined the honor. One ex-marine put it this way, “I am not a hero. The heroes never left this island.” I think my father felt this way about his own service.

In dedicating this plaque, we honor two members of the greatest generation who in a moment of danger to our nation and its freedoms gave up the comforts of home, went to war to protect our freedoms from a threat, and then returned home to build the nation they loved. Millions of young men and women did the same thing during World War Two. They are all heroes, and they should be remembered and honored for what they accomplished.

Today, our family remembers Dad and Granddad. I hope our children and grandchildren will remember them and their sacrifice. As the psalmists knew long ago, those who forget their family or national story are doomed to lose it. Those who remember the faith and deeds of their ancestors have a better shot at maintaining the legacy of their faith and faithful deeds. Our parents and grandparents were not perfect; but we owe them a lot and should honor them.

Let us pray.”

Lesson Two: Sowers: It Begins with You

IMG_0089This is Lesson Two of a training manual Kathy and I are writing. We would very much enjoy any comments for improvements and corrections anyone has. We will be teaching this training program for 26 weeks this next year. Sorry for the delay. I experienced some technical difficulties last week and until now!!

Copyright 2015, Chris and Kathy Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Whenever a problem is solved, someone sees the problem, decides to solve it, figures out a solution, and gathers people to carry out the solution. For the gospel to spread, someone has to take responsibility to do what needs to be done. Someone has to take responsibility for sowing the seed of the Gospel in human hearts. For the kingdom of God to expand, for a church or Bible study to grow and prosper, someone has to step forward to and lead. In God’s Good News mission to the world, it is a person willing to disciple others, in this case a “Sower.”

When missionaries enter a mission field the need is vast. There is almost no one except the missionaries to meet that need. Something has to be done. The founders of the Church Growth Movement saw the need, but knew that traditional solutions would either not work or would take too long. One missionary working six days a week, twelve hours a day, can only reach so many people with the Gospel of wisdom and love a year or in a lifetime. Compared to the number of people who are far from God and who need to hear of God’s wise love, the number of people that can be reached by one or a few people in a year or even a lifetime is small. What is needed is a way for a visionary to lead a few, who lead a few, who lead a few, until the mission field is reached. Today, in the formerly Christian West, as well as in the traditionally unreached places of the world, the number of people who need to be reached are so great that a new method needs to be found. Focusing on people discipling people is that method.

Jesus: Our Guide As a Discipler

The best discipling leader who ever lived was Jesus. He was the best discipler and leader because he was totally related to God and totally committed to his disciples. In Luke, Jesus tells the following parable:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:1-7).

Jesus was was a loving shepherd. He had a heart for the world. The world needed Good News. If we have a heart for the lost, we will also be loving shepherds. What does a loving Shepherd do? He or she rescues sheep. Returning to the need for sowers, the first and most important thing Christian disciples do is share the Gospel and their faith in God. Sharing the Gospel is the first and most important step in rescuing sheep. But, it is not the only step. People have to be loved, nurtured, encouraged, and taught to be disciples. True sowers are more than just speakers of the word. They, like Jesus, become related to people for a long time as they grow and mature in Christ.

The Kind of Sowers God Needs

God needs sowers because there are a lot of people who have never heard the Gospel or if they have heard the Gospel they either never truly received it or they have drifted far away from God and from God’s people. We cannot know exactly who or where these people are. Therefore, we have to treat the world as God’s field and we have to learn to sow the Gospel wherever we are. We sow God’s word in at least two major ways:

  1. We share the Gospel in Words
  2. We share the Gospel in Deeds.

In order to effectively disciple people, we must first be disciples. In order to share the Gsopel in Word and Deed, we have to both know something to share verbally and live out our faith in deeds of love. To do this, we have to grow vertically (in relationship to God), internally (in relationship to one’s true self) and horizontally (in loving relations with others). Such persons want to experience:

Vertical Growth In Relation to God – An effective discipler is a person who cares deeply about his or her relationship with God as revealed in Jesus Christ and seeks to deepen it through prayer, active church participation, study of God’s Word, and above all humility. Such a person is positioned to reach others.

Internal: Growth: In Relation to Self The Bible tells us that Christians should grow in faith, hope and love, and in the fruits of the Spirit, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, kindness, goodness and self-control. People who are not growing in maturity and self-confidence are prone to pride, gossip, and other forms of insecurity. Good disciplers, while not nearly perfect, exhibit maturity, self-understanding, and poise. They have or are developing well-integrated personalities. A person who has self-knowledge and who is in the process of overcoming sin and self-centeredness in his or her self is positioned to help others find God and grow in a relationship with God.

Horizontal Growth: In Service to Others – An effective discipler is a person who is growing in his or her love for others and willingness to reach out to others in word and deed. John 3:16 Jesus shares the Gospel with Nicodemus in this form: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son so that whosoever believes in him will never perish but have eternal life.” God loved the world. Therefore, God reached out to the world in word and in deed by the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He reached out in loving service to a lost world.

If we are going to sow the seeds of the Gospel in the lives of other people, the first thing we must do is be sure we are growing in relationship to God, to our true selves, and to others.

Jesus had a relationship with God, who he called “Abba” or “Father” or even “Daddy.” Nothing is more important to being a good discipler of others than having a strong personal relationship with God through Christ. Second, we must be in the process of becoming more like Christ. To do this, we have to mature in our faith and overcome the sins of pride. Finally, we will not sow until we we have the same love for others that God has for the lost world.

Entering Your Field

A sower cannot sow until the sower gets into the field. Therefore, it is important to come to an understanding of what kind of field God is calling us to enter and into which we show the Gospel. This is where we need to take a moment and think about a Greek term, “Oikos.’ The word in Greek means “Household.” In the ancient world, families included parents, grandparents, children, servants, extended family members and often others. All of these persons were a part of the household. In contemporary language we would call an “Oikos” a “Social Network.” Our mission field is not so much a place as it is the people we know and with whom we can share Christ.

In the first Century, the Gospel grew very rapidly, primarily though sharing the Gospel within households and human relationships. There were no church buildings. There were no church programs. Churches did not sponsor concerts and other community activities. The Gospel was shared person to person, primarily through households. Slaves shared the Gospel with other slaves and with their masters. Masters shared the gospel with their farm workers. Family members shared the Gospel with other family members. Friends shared the gospel with friends. Students shared the gospel with other students. In the end, almost every Christian shared the gospel with someone close to them. Many people who have studied the church today think that we need to return to this “Household to Household” method of sharing the Gospel.

Set out below is a graphic of what it means to have an “Oikos” or “Social Network” within which the Gospel can be shared.imgres-1

We all have friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, school friends and others we see regularly. These persons make up our social network within which we can most effectively disciple people.

It takes a while to really understand the implications of the notion of evangelizing a social network For example, most of us would not think of our hairdresser or barber, our yard men or repairmen, the people who check us out at the grocery store, the barista at Starbucks, the people at the gym or on the running trail—all the many, many people with whom we come in contact every day as part of our household, but they are. We all know a lot of people with whom we can share the gospel if only we reflect on who and how to share.

If the Christian faith is to grow in our culture and in other cultures, Christians will beed to return to the notion that the Good News is important for everyone. It contains the secret to a happy life for all people. It was never meant to be a private thing that Christians possess. Christian faith is meant to be shared with others. Sharing was never meant to be something a few talented evangelists do. It is meant to be something all Christians do to the best of their ability.

Take a moment and think about people you know with whom you can share the Gospel:


Family members:











Lesson One — Needed: a Heart for the Harvest

Mom and Dad in BelizeThis is Lesson One of  the training manual Kathy and I are writing. We would very much enjoy any comments for improvements and corrections anyone has. We will be teaching this training program for 26 weeks this next year. Please help us by subscribing to this blog, commenting on each lesson, and encouraging your friends to do so as well. This blog is dedicated to helping people on the 
journey of life, living a life of wisdom and love.

Copyright 2015, Chris and Kathy Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). In any discipling movement, Christians are asked to hear God’s call and go into God’s field to share the gospel in word and deed. In order to do this, we must hear the voice of God calling us from our current pattern of life, including our some small portion of our  hobbies, activities, and church activities, into the world which is God’s field to share the message and reality of God’s love with those we find there. God is not asking most of us to do anything radical. Instead, he is asking us to order our lives in love and wisdom to make the world a better place by sharing his love with others.

Jesus came to announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He came to announce that God loves people, forgives people, and wants people to receive his Spirit so that they can live in his power. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus saying, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). To be a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, someone has to call people to repent, turn around, look at themselves, recognize how far they are from God, and then turn from the kingdoms of this world to his Kingdom of Wisdom and Love.

People will never repent unless they believe there is a better, healthier, more joy filled way of life available in Christ. In other words people must believe and put their trust in the gospel that Christ proclaimed: that God loves us, sent his son to die for us, wants us to be his children, part of his family, members of his kingdom (John 3:16). When we are sent into the harvest, we are sent to proclaim in word and deed the gospel of the kingdom in ways that cause those who are open to hear, believe, and enter God’s gracious kingdom of love.

Our church and other churches are filled with people who have never shared their faith with another person. Some students of discipleship estimate that many, if not most, Christians have never shared their faith with another person. This is too bad. These people are good people. They believe in Christ. They know that their life is better off because of their faith in God. However, they do not have a real heart for those who struggle with a sense of the meaninglessness of their lives. They love their neighbors, but too often miss the emptiness in their hearts and the struggle of their lives.

Romans 8 is one of the most beautiful texts in the entire Bible. Here is the part of what Paul has to say in this lovely passage:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:14-17).

Here is the idea Paul is communicating: God by his Spirit is calling us. He has made us so that we desire to connect with an ultimate meaning and purpose. We have a longing for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We have a longing for God built into all of our souls. This is reflected in St. Augustine’s famous line, “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” [1] God in his great mercy has made us with hearts that yearn for meaning, purpose, faith, goodness, wisdom, beauty, and love.

The World is God’s Field

images-3In Mark, Jesus tells a parable of the Kingdom of God. He says that his kingdom is like a farmer who goes out into a field that shows seed:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk then the head then the full grain in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe he puts the sickle to it for the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

This parable is a story about the kingdom of God and about sharing the Good News. A farmer has a field. In the case of God, the whole world is God’s field. This is why John can say, “For God do loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The world is the place where God intends to plant his kingdom and harvest a great crop of human beings filled with the fruit of the Spirit.

Each of us lives and works in some small part of God’s field. We may live in a large city or in a small town. We may live in the center of a city or in a suburban neighborhood. We may live in a wealthy nation or a poor nation. Wherever we live and work, that is our field.

Like any good farmer, God wants to see the day when his entire field is bearing a crop. Therefore, he sends a sower into his field. Jesus was the first sower of the Gospel, but others, the prophets especially, came to proclaim God’s love and God’s will to the people of Israel. In Jesus case, he came into the world to proclaim and to bring into being God’s gracious kingdom of love. Jesus was, however, not the last or final sower. He has sent us into God’s field with the same commission as he received from the Father.

Sowers in God’s Field

In John, Jesus speaks to his disciples one the night after his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. He records Jesus entering the room the disciples were in and then speaking to them:

Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:19-23).

Jesus spent three years with his disciples sowing the Kingdom into their hearts. As his time on earth was ending, he would no longer be restricted by time and by space. He could be present to his disciples by the Holy Spirit he breathed upon them. What did he say? He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:22). Jesus had been sent to proclaim the good news of God’s forgiveness of sins. Now, Jesus is sending the disciples into the world to sow the seed of God’s kingdom just exactly as Jesus sowed the kingdom when he was physically present with his disciples. The twelve were going to disciple people, and those people were going to disciple people, and those people were going to disciple people until God’s kingdom grows throughout the whole world.

Jesus never intended building the kingdom of God to be the preserve of a few evangelists or charismatic pastors. God does not want evangelism to be accomplished just by pastors or by specially trained laypeople. The reason God chose twelve ordinary people to be his first disciples is that he intends for all of us, all Christians, to participate in building his kingdom. He wants us to do so where we live, work, play, and meet people, etc.—everywhere we go. Just as God sent Jesus to us, we are sent by Jesus into our world to share the Good News with others. God does not just work through special people to share his love. He works through every heart captured by his love.

The Seed is the Gospel

It is no good for a farmer to have a field and the ability to sow the field if there is no seed. A sower needs seed. In the same way, disciples of Jesus need seed as they go out into the part of the world that is their particular field. The seed is the gospel. Most Christians know of the Gospel, but when asked to put it into words, they do not how to communicate that Good News to others. One of the primary purposes of this study is to equip people to share the good news by developing the ability to communicate it to other people in a simple, concise, non-threatening way.

Jesus came proclaiming the gospel. In Jesus’ words, the gospel was the Good News that the long wait of Israel for the Messiah was over. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God had arrived (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15). In Luke, the birth of Jesus is portrayed as being announced by angels in such a way that it is clear that the birth of Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming the Good News, saying:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me  to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-20).

The Good News is that the Messiah has come to undo the effects of sin and oppression in the lives of the people of God. As God’s commissioned disciples, we are called to go into the world and continue building God’s kingdom  of wisdom and love, sharing his Gospel just as the original disciples went into the ancient world.

The first disciples, as they went out into the world to share the gospel, had to develop a way to explain to people the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul, who was perhaps the most effective of these early missionaries several times tells his disciples what the Gospel is. Near the end of his ministry, writing to Timothy, his beloved helper, he said: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15). Embedded in this little sentence is every element of a good testimony. The way to salvation is Jesus Christ. Christ came to save sinners. We are all sinners in need of salvation. Perhaps Paul’s longest version of the Gospel occurs in First Corinthians where he says:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

In this passage, Paul outlines the gospel in narrative form. He begins by stating the importance of the Gospel. He then tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, emphasizing that Jesus died for sinners, just like all of us.

I Corinthians was one of Paul’s earliest letters. 2 Timothy was one of the last. In 2 Timothy Paul speaks again of the Gospel:

So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (3 Timothy 1:8-10).

Although the context and wording is different, the Gospel is the same. God’s appointed savior Jesus the Christ came because of God’s foreknowledge and was apparent in the death and resurrection of Christ. This Gospel provides a means of salvation for everyone who believe in Christ and accept the gift of the forgiveness of sins and new life God offers them.

One thing we will do in this training is to develop the ability to make a short presentation of the Gospel. For the time being, it might be enough to take the time to write out in your own words what you think the Gospel is. Try writing it down in your own words.

[1] At. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Image Books, 1960) Book 1, p. 43.

Introduction To Presbyterian Disciple Training

IMG_0089This is the introduction to a training manual Kathy and I are writing. We would very much enjoy any comments for improvements and corrections anyone has. We will be teaching this training program for 26 weeks this next year. This is a group project!!!

Copyright 2015, Chris and Kathy Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Jesus gave the Church a commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). images-1Making disciples is the God’s supreme desire for the entire church. It involves going to where people are, bringing them into the fellowship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them the things of God, showing them how to live a life pleasing to God.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. However, Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. We believe that Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person. Because being a disciple involves getting to know a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in the presence of that person. Jesus promised us that, “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). If we are to meet Jesus, a person must introduce us to him. If we are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, we must be mentored by someone who is further along the path of discipleship that we are. If we are to learn of Jesus, we must spend time with his people. This means that we need to be a part of a Christian fellowship that is trying to spend time with him. One way we do this is when we become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way.

“T4T” or “Training for Trainers” and “Discipleship Making Movements” or “DMM” are techniques that have been and are being used all over the world to disciple people, plant churches, and grow the kingdom. [1] Many of these programs have seen great success in growing the kingdom of God by bringing people into small house churches where they can be discipled as followers of Jesus. There is nothing wrong with any of these programs. Many of them are sponsored by independent churches that practice believer baptism, have weekly worship and communion services in small house groups, and conduct their business in ways that are not easy to emulate in the Presbyterian tradition. This set of lessons seeks to outline a way in which Presbyterians can participate in this movement without ceasing to be Presbyterian.

Having said this, it is important to underscore the debt Presbyterians owe to the Church Planting Movement, those who developed T4T and DMM, and the way in which they have been used by God to grow his kingdom. This booklet is not intended to denigrate what these movements have done worldwide. In fact, it is intended to honor that movement as we seek to find a way to appropriate it into the Reformed tradition. Those who envisioned and designed this program did a wonderful thing that has enriched the kingdom of God across the globe.

Finally, it is important to point out that this Presbyterian introduction is not a substitute for the voluminous literature that is already in existence. If one were to undertake to even summarize this vast literature, it would involve creating a book no one would ever be able to read! This work is just a series of chapters that deal with a discipleship in a general way, hopefully in sufficient detail that Presbyterians can become involved more easily than if the manual did not exist. We encourage pastors and congregations who are interested in T4T, DMM, and other Church Planting programs to read the primary sources as well as this work.

Jesus: The Great Example

There is one reason, more than any other why every Christian should either be involved leading people to Christ in some kind of a small discipleship group: Jesus brought people to himself and was in a small group of people he was actively discipling. Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. He chose twelve average human beings and lived in community with them for his entire ministry. Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus and their time together that propelled them to carry the Good News on a continuing journey to every nation on the face of the earth. The way the early church grew was by reproducing what Jesus had done while he was with them. This is important to us. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in our communities and around the world is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people together into discipling groups, training new believers, and continually reproducing this process through generations of discipling people.

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 the following 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).

There are several features of this commission that many Christians have forgotten:

We are to go. In fact, we are all going somewhere—to work, to the office, to school, to a social club, to work out, to church, to our homes, to our family, etc. In fact we are going somewhere most of the time.

We are to share. As we are going we are to make disciples of all nations, or as it would be in the original, of all people groups. In other words, we are to share the gospel with everyone and make disciples of anyone who responds.

We are not alone. Christ has not abandoned us. He is with us by the power of the spirit.

In our congregation, we have an older retired pastor who grew up on a farm. Robert is in is 80’s. He has been a pastor and a missionary. He has worked in the area of evangelism. 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. 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.

You actually have to know a little Greek to understand that Robert has captured the essence of what Jesus is saying. The word “Go” is a participle. It can mean, “Go!” but it also connotes “As you are going” in the imperative. Jesus does not say, “Get people to say they believe in me.” He says, “Teach them so that they can obey.” Too often evangelism programs stop at conversion. This is not what Jesus asked us to do. He asked us to make disciples.

It is very important right at the beginning to get firmly in mind the following principles of the Great Commission:

Go: Coming to church is not what the Christian life is about going into the world making disciples.

Share: Share with everyone you can, not some people you like.

Make Disciples: We are not called to make people Church members; we are called to make disciples. [2]

Jesus: Up In and Out

imgresThe essence of discipleship is having a relationship with Jesus. Discipleship involves a kind of triangular relationship. We have a vertical relationship with God that is the ground of all we say and do. That vertical relationship with God in Christ results in deep changes in our inner being as we become a part of the community of Jesus and walk with him and other believers. We become more like Christ. Finally, our vertical relationship with Christ and our inner transformation in Christ causes us to reach out to others with the love of God. We become a part of the Christian community and what God is doing in and through his people. This is important to get straight right at the beginning. God wants a personal relationship with us. God also wants a communal relationship with us through the church, the people of God, the ecclesia, those God has called to be his special witnessing people. Finally, God wants us to reach out and share what we have experienced in Jesus Christ with others.

The life of a disciple must be built around all three points in the triangle: We must be passionately in love with God and willing to follow Christ and obey God’s commands. To do this, we must be part of God’s radical community, the Church, where we can learn to live in wholeness, peace (Shalom) and love as God intended us to live bound together by the Spirit. Finally, we must reach out into our communities with the love of God so that others may experience God’s wisdom and love. [3]

We hope that you will enjoy your training to be a leader in this very important ministry in our church. This manual is for you to use now and in the future and to help you grow in your walk with Christ. We want to thank everyone who made it possible. In particular, we thank the many experts in the field of evangelism, leadership training, and small groups whose works were consulted in preparing this Guide.

[1] There are three main streams within what is sometimes called, “The Church Planting Movement.” T4T, DMM, and what is sometimes called DMS. They are similar, but have different strategies. This lesson book is not a place to talk about the differences. In this guide we draw on strategies and tactics from all three approaches.

[2] 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.

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

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

John 3 is one of the most important chapters in our Bible. Almost every child and every Christian knows John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). images-2Yet, perhaps fewer Christians have studied the chapter in detail. The famous quote concerning God’s love for the world comes in the middle of a long conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews”—a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s seventy member Jewish ruling council. He was almost certainly wealthy, well-educated, respected, and powerful. Nicodemus appears in Scripture as a just, fair, open-minded, and compassionate man.

Nicodemus also appears in John 7, where he defends Jesus against an early attempt to arrest him (John 7:45-52). Finally, John tells us that Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in paying for and assisting in the burial of Jesus (John 19:39-40). Christian tradition holds that Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus, was baptized by Peter and John, lost his position in the Sanhedrin because of his faith in Christ, and was finally forced to flee the City of Jerusalem. [1] If this tradition is accurate, then Nicodemus was willing to give up everything—wealth, position influence, and power—in order to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.

Receiving Grace

I want to ponder in this blog the first seventeen verses of John. They read as follows:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:1-17).

Questions of the Night

John’s Gospel is much different than the other gospels. It is structured around certain signs and sayings. It leaves out many things the other gospels contain and contains things the other gospels do not mention. In addition, John often uses images and metaphors to convey its message. One image that constantly appears in John is a comparison of the darkness of our world and the light that is in Christ (John 1:4-5; John 3:19-21; John 812; 9:35-41).

John 3 begins with Nicodemus making a visit to Jesus by night. imgresRembrandt and other famous painters have tried to capture the scene. I have chosen an image that shows the light of a wall candle, perhaps symbolizing the Holy Spirit, illuminating the scene. A lot of ink is spilt trying to explain the reason Nicodemus came by night. Was Nicodemus afraid? Was he fearful of what his wealthy and powerful friends might think? Was he just too busy to make a daytime visit? We will never know the exact reason, but we do know that John uses this night visit to compare the darkness in which Nicodemus lives to the light of Christ.

Nicodemus is portrayed as a man with questions. He has heard of the powerful teacher and miracle worker, Jesus of Nazareth, and wants to believe that this Jesus is a man of God who can somehow illuminate and explain for him the way to God (John 3:2). Jesus seems to understand that Nicodemus is an earnest seeker who wants to know how to have a new kind of life and, perhaps, escape the legalism of the Pharisees. Jesus understands that Nicodemus is a true seeker after God, what Jesus elsewhere calls, a “Person of Peace” (Luke 10:6). Therefore, he says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). This begins and exchange of questions Nicodemus asks, questions that, in a different way, people continue to ask today.

First, Nicodemus asks, “How can a person be born anew when they are already old?” (John 3:4). In other words, “How can an old guy like me find a new life?” This is a question that people ask today, though in a different way. Sometimes, we do think that we are too old for God to use us or for to find a new life. Sometimes, we think that we have made too many mistakes, done to many things wrong, spent too many years away from God to find a new and better life. Sometimes, we feel too world-weary to begin again. When we feel like this, we are asking Nicodemus’ question.

Second, Nicodemus asks, “Assuming one could be born again, how would it work?” (John 3:4). “Surely a person cannot enter into his mother’s womb a second time. It cannot possibly work that way, can it?” Once again, all over the world in different ways and with different answers, people ask that question. Religions that believe in reincarnation essentially teach that our second chance comes in another life we will have in the future. Their idea is that we simply live life over and over again until we get it right. Skeptics, frankly, answer the question with the belief that it is not possible at all. There is no new life. Materialists ask the question and come up with a formula of diet, exercise, education, self-help, counseling, meditation, and the like that will permit human beings to recover our lost youth. You see, everyone and anyone who believes that they have messed up in life have wondered, “How do I start over?” When we feel like this, we are asking Nicodemus’ question.

One way or the other, all human beings ask the same questions Nicodemus asked Jesus. In moments of darkness, of despair, of failure, of longing for a new and better life, we all wish we could start over. By now, I have counseled so many people that I often cannot remember names, places, or even precise situations. Nevertheless, I do know that this question is one I’ve been asked a lot of times in different ways. There are business people who have done something foolish and asked, “How can I start over at my age?” There are husbands and wives that have failed and asked, “How can we start over given all the water under the bridge?” There are parents who have failed children and children who have failed parents who ask the question, “How can our family find renewal and new life?” Once again, Nicodemus’ questions are universal human questions we all encounter all the time when we get to know people.

Glimmers of Light

Into the spiritual darkness in which Nicodemus finds himself Jesus shines a bit of spiritual light. Of course, no one can physically start over in life. We cannot be physically born again once we have entered this world. We physically cannot start over once we have made certain decisions. We cannot avoid certain consequences of our decisions. We cannot overcome the physical limitations of our genetics and experiences. However, we can have a new life! We can be born again into God’s kingdom of Wisdom and Love. We can experience the blessedness of being a child of God. We can become a part of God’s family.

In answer to the question, “How can I be a New Person?” Jesus answers as follows:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

In other words, Jesus is saying, “You can become a new person, Nicodemus. You can find a new life. You can eliminate the darkness you feel in your soul. You can have a deep, personal relationship with God. The birth will not be physical, but spiritual. You must open your heart and ask God, who is a spirit, to come into your heart.”

God can give us a new life; however, he gives us a new life that is spiritual in nature. He may not change our circumstances. He may not change our physical condition. He is surely not going to make time go backwards. Instead he gives us his own life, which is different than physical life. It is a life of self-giving love and wisdom that never ends.

In response to this answer of Jesus, Nicodemus goes on to ask, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). In other words, the conversation moves on to the second question, “How can I have this new life?” or “How can this work?” In his response, Jesus says perhaps the most important words in the entire passage, words that most of us have never considered:

You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him (John 3: 10-15).

In the book of Proverbs we find the following:

I am the most ignorant of men; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom,  nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know! (Proverbs 30:1-4).

images-1This is one of those places where it is hard to believe those who assert that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, could possibly be correct. Nicodemus was a wise man. He was learned in the Old Testament. He was a ruler of the Jewish people, familiar with the proverbs of Israel that were used to teach those who would one day be in a leadership position. Nicodemus knew what we know as Proverbs 30. He probably had memorized it. In these verses from John, Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you know that the only person who could really answer your questions, the only person who has penetrated the heart of the wisdom of God, would be the Son of God. You know that the prophets looked forward to a messiah they called the Son of Man (Daniel 8:13). I am that person, and I am going to be lifted up on a cross just like Moses lifted up the snake in wilderness, so that you and everyone else will know this.” This is where we come to the text we all know. Jesus goes on to say:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17, NIV).

Here is the Gospel restated: The creator of the universe, the giver of the Law to Moses, the God of the Prophets, loves the world so much he is willing to give his son for its salvation. Those who believe in the Son and who receive the gift by faith will enjoy “Eternal Life,” that is the very life of God.

What is the Main Thing in Your Heart

Jesus ends this section of teaching by comparing the Light that He is with the Darkness of the world and of the human heart (John 3:19-20). It is as if he is asking, Nicodemus, and us, “What do you love?” “What do you believe in?” “Who do you really trust?” “Do you believe, really believe that God is love?” “Do you really believe that by my Spirit you can receive eternal life?” “Do you believe the life of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit is the Main Thing?” “Are you willing to trust in me and me alone as the ultimate source of your life?”

In other words, he is asking, “What is the main thing in your heart?” God loves you. God wants you to enjoy his divine life now and in the world to come. All he asks is that you believe in his promise. As I mentioned at the beginning, we think Nicodemus chose to believe in and follow the Christ. May we do the same.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., “Nicodemus” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 895.

Come as You Are—But Don’t Stay that Way

This last Sunday was Pentecost. On Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Christian church. It is the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in Jerusalem, the gospel was preached by Peter, and thousands were saved (Acts 2:1-41). imgresIt is also the day on which new believers began meeting together, hearing the teachings of the apostles, praying, having communion together, and experiencing the new life of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:42-47). In the early church, Pentecost was more important than Christmas and nearly as important as Easter. Today is also a reminder that we can participate in the life of God. We do not have to stay as we are; we can be new people by the power of the Holy Spirit. We, like the early Christians, can be filled with the Spirit and changed by our faith.

Not so long ago, I met a person I knew forty-five or so years ago. When we were in High School, this person was skinny, not a good student, and not athletic. He was a party animal. He did not go straight to college, but worked for a while after graduation. I lost track of him. Not long ago, a handsome, confident, obviously kind person came up to greet me. “I hear you are a pastor,” he said. He then sat down and began to tell me about his Christian walk and introduced me to his wife. What a changed person he was! Actually, even today, if I did not know he was the person I knew in high school, I would not believe it was him!

By the same token, I have had the experience of seeing someone I knew in High School who left school, got hooked on alcohol or drugs, drifted into other behaviors, and looked twice their age. What we experience in our lives makes a difference. People change for the better or for worse in life. In this blog, we are talking about God’s power to change our lives for the better.

Come as You Are—But Don’t Stay that Way

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most important letters in the New Testament. Scholars often reflect on its importance to Christian life and Christian thought. [1] In this letter, we see Christ’s sacrifice and our salvation as a part of God’s eternal plan (Ephesians 1:4-14). Because of the resurrection, Paul believes that Christians can be enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Pentecost—to know God and to live in the power of God’s Spirit (1:15-23). Then, in Chapter 2, Paul sets out his doctrine of Grace—the Power of God’s Spirit acting in love. Here is how he puts it:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 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 2:4-10).

The Nature of Grace

There is no idea of the Christian faith more important than the idea of Grace.images-1 There is certainly no idea more important to Protestants, since the idea that we are Saved by Grace through Faith in Christ Alone is central to the Reformation and to all Protestant theology and life. [2] Grace, however, is much more than an idea in theology books. It is a reality that must be experienced and lived. Our busy, work-oriented, frantic, lonely, and isolated culture needs to understand and, much more importantly, experience God’s grace. The therapy of God by the Spirit is of importance to our happiness as well as our salvation! [3]

So, what is God’s Grace? Grace is God’s self-giving love towards us offered freely and without cost. The Greek word, “Charis” is the same word from which we get the word “Gift” as in Spiritual Gifts. The definition of Grace has important implications for Christians:

  • We can’t earn Grace: It is a gift not something we earn.
  • We can’t deserve Grace: It is a gift not something we deserve.
  • We can only receive Grace as a gift. As Paul reminds us in today’s text Grace is a gift we receive by faith, so we have nothing to boast about.

Grace is the most important thing in the world. Grace is not only essential to our salvation; it is essential to a health human life. One reason our culture is characterized by fear about the future and excessive striving to secure our future is that we have forgotten how to rest in God and allow God to work in areas we cannot control and should not control. Thomas Oden puts it this way:

The Christian life comes to us on God’s initiative, not our own. We can choose by God’s grace to put ourselves in those times and places where God promises to be present. We can avail ourselves of the means of grace, but not so as to control them. They remain precisely grace—sheer gift. The teaching of grace stands as a penetrating challenge to all pretensions of self-sufficiency. [4]

We can never make any progress in the Christian life until we get straight on the fundamental principle: We cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. What we can do is have faith in the love of God and in what Christ accomplished and revealed on the Cross. When I teach about Faith and Grace I put tell the following story. When our children were young, each Christmas Eve we would sit by the tree opening presents. Kathy would pick up a present, read a name, and hand the present to me. Then, one of our children would come up and get the gift. They had not earned the gift. They could not pay for the gift. But they did have to come up and get the gift. Faith is the means by which we receive the gift God has for us.

Grace Accepts Us Just as We Are.

I suppose every child has played in the mud, and every mother has cleaned up a filthy child (usually a little boy) who has found a pool of mud. When I was little, I was always getting filthy playing in dirt, mud, haystacks, piles of leaves, and other places from which Mom probably wished I would stay away. When our son was young, we learned that he had inherited this same quality! Did my mother reject me because I played in the mud? Did Kathy cease to love our son just because he got filthy? No!

The idea of purity is important to Jewish thought. To the Jew, the goal of human life was to become “righteous” by following the law and avoiding all forms of impurity. This explains a lot of the laws the ancient Jews were to obey. It is just contrary to this way of thinking to believe that God can accept us just as we are. God wants us to become pure and cannot accept us as we are.

Jesus changed all this. The Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke is the best possible example. In the parable, a younger son dishonors his father and family by asking for his inheritance early. Unexpectedly, the father agrees. [5] Then, while the son defiles himself in immorality, the father patiently and lovingly waits for the child to come home. imgres-2When the son does come home, the father welcomes him with open arms, gives him fresh clothing, throws a party, and celebrates. The older brother cannot understand how a father could possibly act like this, expressing the Jewish discomfort with grace. But the father affirms that the wayward son is welcome because “Once he was lost, but now he is found. Once he was dead, but now he is alive” (Luke 15:11-32).

In this parable, Jesus reveals a God who does not reject people for failing, for doing foolish things, for behaving immorally, etc. Instead God is portrayed in the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a forgiving, loving, restoring God. This is what God showed us in Christ: God loves each one of us unconditionally, like the greatest father any of us might have or dream of having.

This has implications for Advent as a church as well as for Christians. Just as God does not reject people because of their sinfulness, brokenness, and pain, so also God’s church is called to be a place of Grace. We are called to be a place where sinners find a home where the Good News is preached and lived.

Grace Does Not Leave Us As We Are

Grace accepts us as we are, but grace does not leave us as we are. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I will go out in the yard to do some once a summer work. In the course of a few hours, I will begin to look a lot like a dirty child. Moreover, I will begin to smell like what women sometimes call, “A Stinky Boy.” Kathy will not reject me or banish me from the house because of this. She will not stop loving me. She will, however, demand that I take a shower before dinner. When Tim and I used to get muddy playing outside, Mom did not disown us or stop loving us, but she did make us take off our clothes and bathe. Any mother of a small child who managed to get covered with cleans up her child. God, like any good mother, does not leave us as he finds us! God loves us enough to continue by grace to help us change.

John Burke, Pastor of Gateway Church in San Antonio, has writing a book called, No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You are Culture in the Church. In the book, he describes what would happen if one of us found a Rembrandt covered in mud:

“If you saw a Rembrandt covered in mud, you wouldn’t focus on the mud or treat it like mud. Your primary concern would not be the mud at all — though it would need to be removed. You’d be ecstatic to have something so valuable in your care. But if you tried to clean it yourself, you might damage it. So you would carefully bring this work of art to a master who could guide you and help you to restore it to the condition originally intended. When people begin treating one another as God’s masterpiece waiting to be revealed, God’s grace grows in their lives and cleanses them.” [6]

Each of us is like a masterpiece painted by God. Along the journey of life, we may have managed to get covered in mud, but that does stop God from loving us. God reaches out to us just as we are. However, it is not God’s plan to leave us as we are. God’s grace continues to operate in our lives after we accept Christ. This grace, sometimes called, “Sanctifying Grace” helps us become the people God desires us to be.

There is a kind of evangelical Christianity that is not just about grace, it is about what the German martyr, theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called “Cheap Grace.” dbprisonCheap Grace is not really grace at all. It is counterfeit grace—a kind of religious co-dependence. In his book, the Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer decries the Church’s tendency to market Cheap Grace to people. Cheap Grace is grace without a commitment to change, grace without true repentance, grace without awareness and confession of sin, grace without the necessity of discipleship. [7] Cheap Grace is really not grace at all.

Grace Creates What We Shall Be

Bonhoeffer goes on to describe real, Costly Grace. Costly Grace is like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in his parable of the same name. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Discipleship is like a precious jewel hidden in a field. A reasonable person knowing of such a jewel would go, sell everything, borrow as much as possible, and purchase that pearl (Matthew 13:45-46). Real Grace is Costly Grace. It costs us everything because it is the priceless gift of God. If we have been truly saved then whatever good works we do are not just works of our human strength, but also works of God.

In the early church, there were people who accused Paul of a kind of Cheap Grace. Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith and not works was and is subject to misunderstanding. Some people accused Paul of “antinomianism,” or being against the Torah, the law of God. In Romans, Paul specifically defends himself against this charge, saying:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:1-4).

Christianity does not eliminate the law or the desire of God that we live in holiness. Our problem is, as Paul knows, we cannot obey the law without a new kind of live, a divine life given to us by God (Romans 7:21-25). Our new birth in Christ is like our natural birth. No one of us had anything to do with our physical birth. We received life as a gift from our parents. Similarly, we cannot be “born again” by our own works or by any action we take. Only God can give us a new life. Nevertheless, after we are born again we can and must cooperate with God in discipleship as by grace God transforms us into the people he desires us to be. This is what is sometimes called “Cooperating Grace.” In discipleship we cooperate with God in becoming the people God calls us to be. Grace you see does not end with our salvation. It continues after our salvation as God completes the work he began in our salvation (Philippians 1:6).


There are a lot of folks these days trying to figure our how to live forever. What if there was a way to live forever? What if there was a way not just to live forever, but also to live forever in a state of blessedness human beings never enjoy however much money they have? What if there were a way to live not just as we now live, but as we dream of living, filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, hope and the like? There is. God’s Sanctifying Grace is also God’s Perfecting Grace. We will not fully experience it in this world, but we will experience it. God is in the business of making all things perfect, including us. There will be a New Heaven and a New Earth, and there will be a new you and a new me (Revelation 21:1).

Ephesians says we are saved by grace not by works, yet God has prepared works for us to do. This sounds hard until we realize that the works God has for us to do are simply the works of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, hope, and the like we will do once we are captured by his love and renewed by his grace. The works of which Paul speaks are not something unpleasant or otherworldly. Instead, the works of Grace consist in living our ordinary lives in an extraordinary, loving, grace-filled way. This is the life of discipleship.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Francis W. Beare, “Epistle to the Ephesians” in The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1953). I do not agree with Beare regarding authorship but it is a fine commentary.

[2] The Reformation outlined the so-called “Sola’s.” “Sola” means “Alone.” For Luther and the reformers, there were five ”Sola’s”: Sola Christus (Christ Alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), and Sola Gracia (Grace Alone) and Sola Gloria (Glory of God Alone). Today, the focus is on grace.

[3] See, Thomas C. Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993. I have relied on this book to guide the theology of grace set out, and especially in crafting the definition of grace set out below.

[4] Id, at 37.

[5] See, Ken Bailey, Poet and Peasant through Peasant Eyes Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976). Bailey points out that no first century middle eastern father would have agreed to such a request, and Jesus’ hearers would have understood something we miss—the Father’s love us extravagant, unusual, and unbelievable.

[6] John Burke, No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You are Culture in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 97.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1959, 1961 reprint), 45-47.

From Family to Christian Community

Last week, this blog was on the value of family in Christian faith and life. Families are important to God and important to wise living. It is in our families that we learn and relearn the most basic skill of wise living—loving other people unconditionally. Family is essential for raising children, passing on values to another generation, and  passing faith from generation to generation. We ended last week with a warning: As important as families are, families are only a part of God’s plan. Our human families merge into God’s family, the church. Our human families fully become what God desires them to be as they become part of God’s family. Chris Portrait 008

This week at staff meeting, we talked about the church in America and the challenges we face. Tuesday afternoon, four different people sent me an article containing the results of a recent Pew Institute Poll showing that the number of people who claim to be Christians fell seven percent in only seven years, the largest decline in American history. [1] The Los Angeles Times, the BBC, the New York Times, and other major media outlets picked up the study. For a long time, religious scholars have seen a decline in church attendance. It is not surprising that after a long period of decline in attendance, we now see the results in the number of people who claim to be Christians. The Pew researched showed that the number of Americans claiming to be Christian has fallen precipitously in the past few years.

The word “Church” comes from a Greek word meaning “those who are called out”. [2] The Bible teaches that God calls people into his kingdom of wisdom and love. There is an old gospel hymn called “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” This hymn captures the truth that God calls us in Christ out of the World into his Church. Once Christians are called out, we are called to assemble with other believers as a church. Therefore, the word “ekklesia,” is also a word that translates the Hebrew word for “Assembly,” as when the people of Israel assembled as a nation in the Old Testament. [3] We were called to live together as the church.

Don’t Stop Being Community

This blog’s text comes from Hebrews. Hebrews was written, as the title indicates, to a group of Jewish Christians, perhaps in Rome. [4] The King James Version assumes Paul wrote the letter; however, not very many people actually think Paul wrote it, though he might have. The best candidate is a man named “Apollos” who appears in several of Paul’s letters. Apollos was a master of Greek Rhetoric and scholar of the Old Testament, and seems a likely candidate. Hebrews is written in the best New Testament Greek by someone who knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards. This indicates Paul, Apollos, or someone very similar in background wrote the book. Here is my text for this blog as it comes from the Book of Hebrews:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:19-25).

Prayer: Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: you live eternally in a fellowship of love and desire for us to live in your church as your called out people proclaiming your love to the world. Help us to value your church and to value the relationships we have here with you and others.

 Christ: The Center of Hebrews

As I mentioned above, Hebrews is one of the most elegant books in the New Testament. Whoever wrote it was a committed Christian, familiar with the Old Testament, a brilliant scholar, and a writer of great skill.  The book is organized like a sermon. As is often the case in sermons, Hebrews  alternates theological arguments and practical implications. [5] In this blog, we are talking about the practical implications. However, it helps to know what the author has said earlier about Christ.

imagesHebrews begins with the following statement of the importance of Christ:

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. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Here we have a clear statement of the supremacy of Christ. Christ is superior to the prophets (1:1-2).Christ is the means through which God created the universe (1:2).Christ sustains all things by the power of God (1:2). Christ reveals exactly who God is and what God is like. Christ is superior to angels (1:6-14). Christ is superior to Moses (3:1-4). Christ is the great High Priest (54:14-5:6). Christ is the perfect sacrifice for our sins (9:11-28). Christ is the way in which we can have new relationship with God, a perfect relationship with God by his new and living way (10:20). This is the main point the author of Hebrews wants to make: Christ is the center of Hebrews and the center of our faith.

Because of Christ: Our Relationship with God

We began our text with the word, “Therefore.” When an author begins a sentence with “Therefore,” he or she means to let us know that because of everything that has come before there are certain conclusions to be drawn. The author of Hebrews is no exception. Because of who Christ is and what Christ has done, Christians need to be different and live differently than other people. You see, there are implications to Christian faith. Here are a few mentioned in our text:

First of all, because of who Christ is and what Christ has done, we should draw near to God (v.22). In Jesus, it is revealed that God is not an angry judge. God is not out to get us because we are sinners. Christ reveals that God is love and loves us. We have nothing to fear. I have a friend who is a bit gruff. Most of the time people are just a little afraid of him. However, once you get to know him, you find out he is as loving and gentle as can be. God is like my friend. If you only casually know him, he can be scary. But if you really know who God is in Christ, you know he is safe.

Second, we should not be afraid. God is love. God desires to save us. God has paid the full price for our sins. Therefore, we should have faith and have full assurance that God loves us and we are free from our sins and from the guilty conscience we sometimes have from our sins. This is, I think, one of the most important things about faith: We don’t have to carry around our guilt concerning the past. We are cleansed of that guilt and shame from the past (v. 22). Many people live burdened by guilt and shame from the past. It is not necessary. God has provide a way of healing in Christ.

Finally, we should never lose hope. Because Christ is the exact representation of God, revealing God’s perfect self-giving love, we need not fear. I got a note the other day from one of our members. In the note he said, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.” God has our back. The just, loving, wise and all-powerful God of the heavens and the earth has our back. We have nothing to fear. Whatever may happen to us on this earth, we can be sure that the God of Hope, who raised Jesus from the dead, loves us and intends to respond to his faithfulness.

Hope is not a feeling or a kind of unrealistic optimism. John Polkinghorne notes that faith creates a kind of hope that is not a feeling, not mere optimism, but an acceptance of the world and its possibilities and impossibilities joined with confidence in the fundamental goodness of God. [6] Later he puts it this way:

Hope lies in the divine chesed, God’s steadfast love, and not in some unchanging realm of ideas or an intrinsic immortality of the human soul. Christian trust in the divine faithfulness is reinforced by the knowledge that God is the One who raised Jesus from the dead. Only such a God could be the ground for the hope against hope that transcends the limits of natural expectations. [7]

In Hebrews one finds a list of the great hero’s of the Old Testament. Some of them received the promises of God in their lifetime; others did not (11:13). Those saints who did not, died looking forward to fulfillment of promises they did not receive. They died looking forward to “a better country” (11:16). Christian hope, therefore, looks forward to the future in confidence, not because it is assured of success in this world, but because the God who is faithful will eventually grant justice in this world or in a better world to come.

Because of Christ: Our Relationship with One Another

Those readers who have been on a Great Banquet during which I was the Head Spiritual Director know that I quote Hebrews 10:25 at almost every closing. “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing” (my paraphrase). Christians were never meant to live out the Christian life in We may be alone for a time, but we were not meant to live out our Christian life alone. Community is the normal state for Christians. Aloneness is something we endure. “Church”—“Community”—is our natural state. We were meant for one another.

Christians were meant to live in community, and the community we were meant to live in is the family of God, or the community of God, or what we call “the Church.” Just as God lives in a community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so also God has created the church as a visible reminder of what God is like. God intends for us to be a part of His community of love and live in that community. He never meant it to be made up of people who are passing through relationships with a congregation or one another. He meant it to be made up of people who are in a committed relationship with one another.

My parents belonged to what was known as the “Builder’s Class” of their church. The class was very close. We had picnics, holiday celebrations, like the 4th of July, parties, and the like. That class still exists, though it is quite small. It began somewhere around 1960 or about 55 years ago. At some point during my childhood, one of the members left his wife and family. My Dad, who was an FBI agent, found out where the man was, drove 250 miles, and talked the man into returning to his family. Without their close community and fellowship, it would not have been possible for Dad to do this; however, the man knew Dad cared enough to take a day off, drive 250 miles, and sit down to talk.

In Hebrews 10: 24-25, the author asks us to consider how we can spur one another to good deeds and that we encourage one another. Obviously, there is no encouraging one another without community. The idea of supporting and encouraging one another is the most common idea in the entire New Testament. A prominent Church consultant and author published some fifty-nine such texts in the New Testament. [8] Here are just a few:

  • “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50).
  • “Love one another…” (John 13:34; John 13:35; John 15:12; John 15:17; I John 3:11; I John 3: 2; Romans 13:83; I John 4:7; I John 4:11; I John 4:12; II John 5; I Thessalonians 4:9’ I Thessalonians 3:12; I Peter 3:8; I Peter 4:8).
  • “Be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Honor one another…” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16; I Peter 3:8).
  • “Accept one another…” (Romans 15:7).
  • “Instruct one another…” (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Peter 5:14)
  • “Have equal concern for one another” (I Corinthians 12:25)
  • Serve one another…” (Galatians 5:13).
  • “Carry one another’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2).
  • “Be patient and bear with one another…” (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Forgive one another…” (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
  • “Admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).
  • “Encourage one another…”(I Thessalonians 4:18; I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 3:13).
  • “Build up one another…” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
  • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
  • “Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11).
  • “Don’t grumble against one another…” (James 5:9).
  • “Confess your sins to one another…” (James 5:16).
  • “Pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
  • “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9).
  • “Use whatever gift you have received to serve one another…” (I Peter 4:10).
  • “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…”(I Peter 5:5).

It is obvious from this list that God want us to live in a community of love with each other, not jumping around looking for the perfect church, but living in a community of love with each other. There will be failures, uncomfortable moments, sin, and the like. There is in every human community. On the other hand, there will be times when the Kingdom of God shines through our human brokenness and we glimpse a bit of what heaven is like. We glimpse the Kingdom that is coming in the midst of the world as it is.

What We Are

I began with the observation that the Greek word for “Church” means “those who have been called out by God.” The church is not made up of especially smart, strong, capable, spiritually mature, loving, wise, or caring people. The church is made up of ordinary people whom God has called to declare his praises to the world and show something of his wisdom, love, character, and perfect will in our world (I Peter 2:9). In this world, no congregation will ever be a perfect church. All churches are made up of ordinary, fallen, imperfect people. Therefore, there can be no perfect church. Nevertheless, we are here to represent God to the world as best we can.

This Sunday is Graduation Sunday in our congregation. I want to close this blog with an encouragement to our graduates and the graduates of each and every church. Many graduates will go off to college or begin careers. Some will join campus ministries. Let me encourage you to also become part of a local church wherever you go, hopefully a church where you will be part of an ordinary congregation filled with ordinary people. Find a church where everyone is not your age, your income level, your race, having your interests. Don’t just be friends with the college students. Find someone who is fifty years older than you are to befriend. Find a normal church and continue to love people as God has called you to love. God wants us to be in a community of love not just when we are young, or when we have children, or when we need community, but always. If you are leaving home this year, go do just that.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, “America’s Religious Landscape is Changing” (downloaded May 14, 2015).

[2] The Greek word is “ekklesia.” This word literally translates “those called out from.” The idea is that Christians have been called out from the world into God’s family, the church.

[3] Gerharad Kittle & Gerhard Friedrich, “Kaleo” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Geoffrey Bromiley ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmanns, 1985), 394-402.

[4] William Barclay, “The Letter to the Hebrews” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1976). I am indebted to Barclay for much of the historical background of this book. See also, John Calvin, “Commentary on Hebrews” in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. 22 (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Books, 1993).

[5] There are three main ideas of the book that we must get in our mind to understand what is being said in Chapters 10-13: (1) the supremacy of Christ, the priesthood of Christ, and the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

[6] John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 48-49.

[7] Id, at 95.

[8] Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1991), 129-131. I have not included the entire list here, but eliminated similar and negative “one anothers”. Others have made similar lists of varying sizes. I have shortened George’s for this blog.

Generations of Grace

Every year near Fathers Day, we are reminded that Mothers Day is one of the highest attended Sunday’s of the year. When we lived in Brownsville, I learned that the day before Mothers Day is also the busiest day of the year for florists. A member who was a florist had to employ a number of additional helpers to meet the demand of Mothers Day.

Let’s face it. Mothers are important. IMG_0035When Kathy would go out of town when the children were young they always looked forward to her return. The food and cleanliness of the house made a big improvement within minutes of her return! Mothers are also important for Christian faith. I have heard a lot of testimonies over the last 35 years. The most common testimony is of how a mother or grandmother was essential in bringing a child to faith in Christ. Many of these testimonies were by young men who strayed from the Christian faith only to be rescued by the prayers and sacrifice of a mother or grandmother.

Two weeks ago when looking at the importance of Scripture for the wise and loving life, we looked at II Timothy. Timothy is one of the most important people in the New Testament. Timothy’s mother, Eunice, was central to his Christian faith. Paul discipled Timothy, but it was Eunice who brought him to Christian faith. Most Christians know the story of St. Augustine, who was not a Christian until very shortly before his mother’s death. [1] Monica prayed and prayed for young Augustine. Finally, after much wandering, Augustine embraced his mother’s faith in one of the most dramatic and important conversions in all of Christian history.

If Christian faith is going to be passed from generation to generation, then it will be because mothers, fathers, parents, grandparents, and others take responsibility to disciple children seriously. Churches are important in this process, but family is more important—and mothers may be the most important people of all!

A Warning from History

It may seem odd to read from the book of Judges on and near Mothers Day. However, mothers are part of families, and this is a blog on passing along faith in families. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask the question, “What happens if faith is not passed along?” “What happens if our children and grandchildren forget our faith or the faith of their parents and grandparents?” Judges tells just such a story. Our text comes from Judges 2, and I am going to be readying verse 7 and verses 10-13:

The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. … After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them (Judges 2:7, 10-14).

Most Christians seldom read the book of Judges. It is the seventh book in our Bible and tells the story of Israel between the death of Joshua, who led the people into the Promised Land, until the time of Samuel, the last judge. As Judges begins, a godly, wise, and effective leader has led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Joshua was Moses’ assistant, a great general, and a godly person. Now, Joshua is passing away.

So long as Joshua was alive, the people of Israel followed the LORD. Joshua and the generation Joshua led into the Promised Land remembered their captivity in Egypt. They remembered that God had released them from captivity, led them in the desert, and miraculously delivered them to the Promised Land. However, after Joshua and the members of his generation died, the newer generations did not remember what God had done. They lost their memory of slavery in Egypt, of their suffering, of God’s miraculous deliverance by the leadership of Moses, the long wandering in the wilderness, and their conquest of the Promised Land. They lost their memory, and as they lost their memory of what God had done, they lost their faith. Soon they were worshiping false gods, living immorally, and acting violently. It was not long before they began to lose their blessings as well.

How long did it take? It took less time than the United States has existed as a nation. We need to take a warning from Israel’s history. There is every reason to believe that our nation and our families are forgetting God, forgetting our history, forgetting those who came here seeking religious freedom, forgetting their struggle for liberty.

Increasingly, young people are abandoning the church and the values of our nation. Increasingly, we see signs of religious persecution as elites who have no respect for religion, and even think it dangerous and deliberately suppress and often distort religion’s importance in our history. As individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation we need to take the threat of losing our blessings seriously. Our nation was formed on the basis of religious freedom and self-discipline. It cannot survive without it.

Our founding pastor used to like to say; “The Church is only a generation away from extinction in every generation.” This is true. If those who went before us had not been faithful in their day, we who are Christians would not be here today. If we do not find ways to be faithful now, in our day and time, then the blessings of the wisdom and love that can only come from God will not be with our children. Worse, the sufferings that come with moral and spiritual failure will be theirs. We see every indication that this is happening in our time, in our nation. The increase in violence, selfish self-seeking, the increase in divorce, increasing incidence of instability, a loss of good jobs, and the loss of respect for human life—all these things coincide with our culture’s drift away from its spiritual, moral, and legal heritage.

Grace from God

Romans 8 is one of the most beautiful texts in the entire Bible. Here is the part of what Paul has to say in this lovely passage:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:14-17).

Here is the idea Paul is communicating: God is calling us by his Spirit. He has made us so that we desire to connect with an ultimate meaning and purpose. We have a longing for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We have a longing for God built into all of our souls. This is reflected in St. Augustine’s famous line, “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” [2] God in his great mercy has made us with hearts that yearn for meaning, purpose, faith, goodness, wisdom, beauty, and love.

God’s Spirit cries out in each one of us. When we respond and cry out, “Abba Father” or “Father God” we bring ourselves into alignment with the God of Wisdom and Love. When we do that, we are brought into God’s family. From this point, whatever our former condition, the power of God’s wisdom and love is unleashed in our lives to change us, reform us, renew, us, and permit us to live wise and morally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy lives. This can also mean a healing of our human family.Chris Portrait 008 I personally know this to be true in my life. My conversion to Christ coincided with a healing in my family. God’s grace is not just for our salvation when we die, it is for our healing and salvation and for the healing and salvation of our families, our communities, our church, our nation, our world, as impossible as that seems.

The first and most important things we can do to have a godly family is to open our hearts to God’s grace, invite God in, and allow God to change us. We won’t make a lot of progress on our own. We need God to help us.

Godly Families

Once we have God in the right place, we come to the place where we can get our human families in order as well. There is an old, old adage that a good marriage has three parties, a husband, a wife, and God.imgresThere are times when any family will come apart unless both parties are committed to something more important than their own self-interest. A reason divorce has become prevalent in our culture, even among Christians, is that we often do not remember that there is more at stake in a marriage than our own needs and satisfactions. We forget that God has an eternal purpose in our marriages and families. While God does want us to be happy and fulfilled, God has eternal reasons for the family as a place where children are loved, understood, and nurtured. The family is also a place where the elderly grow old in the care of their children and are respected for their experience and wisdom. This does not always work out; it never works out perfectly. Nevertheless, it is a goal we seek by God’s grace.

When we bring God into our family, it is important to really and truly make God a part of our family. A strength of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is our emphasis on family and on the role of mothers and fathers in the spiritual nurture of children. In a few weeks, we will have Vacation Bible School. All summer long we will have youth and children’s programs. Next fall, we will have EPIC (our midweek children’s program designed after what is called, “LOGOS”). We always have Sunday School. Our church is committed to helping parents in raising Christian children. Yet, the primary place our children learn Christian faith and discipleship is in the home.

A lot of mothers and fathers try to have family devotionals, try to say grace, try to have spiritual conversations with their children, and feel like failures. I urge us not to think this way. Often, we do not see immediate results in discipling children. Sometimes the results of our nurture are long years in revealing themselves. The example of Augustine’s mother, Monica, should always be with us in difficult times.

The Ultimate Family

I wish there were some way to say what I need to say now simply. This is the hardest part of this blog to understand, but it is important. In life there are things that are good in themselves, but they can become harmful when they become ultimate things. Love of country is a good thing—but as we saw in Nazi Germany and in Russian Communism, when love of country is not subject to love of God it can become something terrible. Love of family is the same way. From time to time we see inward-looking families who have no time for others, they are completely absorbed in themselves. Such families are rarely healthy. For a human family to find its place of greatest peace, it must find its true meaning and purpose as a part of the human family and God’s family. Families are part of God’s plan for the wise life, but the family is not God’s entire plan for human happiness.

Over the years, we have been on a few mission trips with our family and other families. Truthfully, I wish we had done more of these. I have really good memories of a few mission trips to Mexico and seeing Hilary, Trammell, Clara or Melanie on the roof of a house being built—and Kathy standing grinning or playing the guitar for a Bible School. On at least one occasion, a couple from Advent came with us and we stayed in the same motel in Mexico. It was a wonderful experience. Serving others, reaching out as a family to help others, getting out of our own selves long enough to see the needs of others is a wonderful and necessary thing.

A couple of weeks ago, the staff attended what is called the “Kainos Conference” in Memphis. It is a special conference that focuses on multi-racial ministry. “Kainos” means “fresh” or “new” in Greek. The idea is that God is doing a new, fresh thing in American churches, as our nation becomes increasingly multi-cultural. Several speakers encouraged us to make friends across cultural and racial barriers. They mentioned that people are uncomfortable with people who are different.

During the talk, one speaker quoted from Revelation a passage wherein we learn that, at the end of human history, we will all be together in heaven—people from every tribe, language group, and nation—all praising God together (Revelation 5:9-10). Then he said, “We are going to be together in heaven; we might as well be together on earth.” It is very true.

My mother is gone phone day 053 One promise I hold dear is that I will see Mom and Dad again in heaven. Our family is not over. Our family remains important to God, and he will restore it. In the end, I will meet people in my family, like my grandfather, I never even knew. Furthermore, in heaven, all the dysfunctions and problems of our family will be healed and we will be bound together in a perfect love we never achieved on earth. Finally, as important as my family will be to me in heaven, there will be another family there, the family of God, the Ultimate Family, of which my own family—and yours—is just a part.


[1] See, At. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Image Books, 1960).

[2] Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, p. 43.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Praying in the Future

Our theme in today’s blog is prayer. imgresPrayer is a key to Christian discipleship, Christian growth, Christian community, and Christian life. As such it is something Christians should value. On my bookshelf, there are a number of books on prayer. I’ve read a number of them. However, prayer is like playing an instrument or any sport. The question is not, “How many books have your read?” The question is, “How much have you practiced?” Prayer is not primarily a matter of knowledge. It is a matter of practice. The best thing to do to learn to pray is pray.

Each weekend in the bulletin there is a prayer list. The last thing we do in every staff meeting is to prepare that prayer list for the congregation. In addition, at 9:30 each Tuesday, a group of staff members meet and pray. Some years ago, when we were changing denominations, we began having prayer vigils on the First Friday of the month. Every first Friday, for the past four years there has been a prayer guide outside the chapel and services at 7:00, 12:00 noon, and 6:00 in the evening. Our prayer day isn’t always well attended, but during this time, we pray for the needs of our church, community, and world. The Session prays for the needs of our church at every meeting, sometimes for a long time.

This is a Great Banquet Weekend. The other day, I woke up early, and Kathy was gone. Well, not really gone. She was downstairs praying for me, for the coming Great Banquet, for our children, and for other prayer requests. This weekend, there have been people praying for the Great Banquet all weekend long. Yesterday, our Men’s Saturday reunion group did what we spend the first Saturday of each month doing: we spent a half a day praying, meditating, and seeking to to grow closer to God.

Paul’s Good Advice.

Our text for this blog comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Although a part of the text has to do with a problem in Philippi, the fact is that Philippians is a happy letter. The Philippian church was a strong church and supported Paul through thick and thin. It was also a generous church, giving to the needs of the church in Jerusalem in a time of need. [1] Like all churches, the Philippian church was not perfect. After Paul left, there were false teachers and other issues. As we begin our text, it is obvious that two people, Euodius and Syntyche, are quarreling. Paul’s admonition to rejoice, pray, and dwell on true and good things arises out of his response to this problem. Here is the Word of God as it comes from Philippians:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:1-9).

Prayer: God of Joy and Peace: Come to us in these words so that we can learn how it by prayer and purity we can enjoy the fullness of joy you have for each one of us. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Our Fallen Condition.

This is a blog about praying, but it needs to begin with our human condition. The problems between the two people in Philippi reminds us that human beings are not by nature in God’s will. We are all naturally self-centered, self-interested, short-sighted, desiring secondary pleasures and unimportant things, inclined to worry and be anxious, sometimes jealous of those who have more than we do, and prone to divide into factions. Each of us may not have all of these inclinations, but we all have some of them. We all have these problems because none of us by nature has the spiritual connection with God that enables us to avoid them. The story of Genesis and the fall is the story of our human condition and its consequences in real life. Since the fall, human beings have had a problem staying connected with God.

I know all my readers know that Kathy and I would never, ever quarrel, and I am sure that none of you who are married ever quarrel, but I have observed in my adult life that when human beings quarrel with another person, we cease to communicate, and when we cease to communicate our problem seldom gets better. In fact, I have noticed over the years that quarrels themselves are often a failure of loving communication in the first place! People who are fighting do not communicate well.

Our relationship with God is no different. Our human tendency is to push God into a corner of our lives, perhaps Sunday morning or a few minutes each day if we remember. The result is that we don’t have the relationship and constant communication we need with God to experience the joy and peace God desires for us to have.

The Solution.

The first step in getting out of ourselves and and our own desires and into God and the desires that God has for us, then, is to rejoice and be thankful for the gift of life and for what God has done for us. It is interesting that, right after Paul comments on the quarrel in the Philippian church, he speaks the following words: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!” (v. 4). A life of prayer begins with rejoicing in faith. Our rejoicing will not always be without pain or fatigue or anxiety. Yet, we know there is a God who cares and so we pray to Him.

Second, Paul goes tells the Philippians to be gentle and not to worry, but in everything with prayers and petitions to let God know what we need (v.5). It is as if Paul is saying, once you have your attitude right about God and have begun to praise God and rejoice your salvation by faith, then start talking. Let God know what you need and how much you need it. Just let God know what is on your heart—everything that is on your heart (v.6). Once again, the point is not that we will never be anxious. The point is to turn our anxiety over to God.

Third, Paul says that we should be thoughtful and think about things that are true, roble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (v.8). In other words, we can’t be filled with the Spirit if we don’t think about things that will fill us with the Spirit of God—the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Thinking about true, good and lovely things centers us on the One who is True, Good, and Beautiful.

Finally, Paul says that the Philippians need to think about what they have seen Paul do, how he lived, the results the Gospel had in his life, and put the Gospel into practice (v. 9). It is only as we rejoice, pray, and become wise, and put into practice the grace we have received that God’s peace will come into our hearts (v. 7, 9). Just like study needs to lead to action, prayer needs to lead to action. We need to put our prayers into practice.

Our congregation is generous when it comes to missions. We give to the EPC World Outreach. We support several missionaries whose names appear in the Prayer List in our bulletin. We support what is called, “The Presbyterian Outreach Foundation,” which supports missions in our former denomination, the EPC, and other denominations. One of the members of that board, who lives in the Southeast, is a real prayer warrior. Every so often, I go into my office and he has a prayer message on my phone. Occasionally, he calls and prays. He did this just this week! Sometimes, I get emails with a word of wisdom and a prayer contained within them. I’ve watched my friend for some time now. He is not a pastor. He is in business. He serves on a financial-related committee of the Outreach Foundation. He is unfailingly cheerful and gentle. He is always obviously prayerful. His prayers are powerful and touching. His comments are unfailingly wise and thoughtful. And, in his personal and professional life he puts into practice what it is he believes and prays for. He does not just pray; he leads a prayerful life.

An Approach.

In this Blog, I don’t want to talk about a method of prayer. Most Christians know about the “ACTS method” of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and about other prayer methods. Instead, I want to talk about an approach to prayer that can help each of us develop a deeper prayer life. This week, in the Bulletin and on Facebook, the meditation was as follows:

In prayer, three things happen: We come in touch with God and God’s will, we come in touch with how our will and God’s will can become one, and we come into unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When our will and God’s will become one, the power of God’s wisdom and love becomes unleashed in our personal lives. When God’s will and the will of a community of believers become one, the power of God’s wisdom and love becomes unleashed in the world.

The first step in developing a prayer life is alignment. If all we do is ask for things, eventually our prayer life burns out. None of us gets all of our prayers answered, and all of us will have times when we ask God for things we cannot and should not have. As we listen to God and align our prayers with God’s will, we slowly begin asking and praying within the will of God. When that happens our prayer life becomes more powerful. The prayer group our Saturday Men’s Reunion Group attends is primarily a listening prayer experience.

Second, one reason we come together and pray as a group on Sunday mornings, in worship, in small groups, and in classes is that, as the members of our Session, Church, classes, and small groups pray together, their wills and prayers begin to align with God’s will.

Think of alignment as something like a laser. imagesLasers are essentially light beams that have become “aligned,” or in scientific terms, “coherent”—that is to say all the beams of light are going in the same direction. The light beam of a laser is powerful because it is aligned and coherent. As we pray and listen to God, our wills and God’s will become aligned. We stop asking for things that are not in God’s will. We do ask for things that are in God’s will. As a group prays and listens to God its prayers become aligned, that is to say the entire group is praying in unity within God’s will. When that happens, the power of God is unleashed in churches, families and communities. This is one reason spouses should pray together: It creates unity and alignment.

Finally, we should pray constantly. We all need to have quiet times. We all need special times of prayers at home and church. At the same time, we should all try to develop the habit of constant prayer—a kind of prayer without ceasing. Paul says we should pray in everything, and that means about everything and all the time. When we are worried, tired, stressed, short, jealous, angry, etc. we need to pray. When life is not going our way, we need to pray. If we listen to God, we will certainly find many, many prayers to lift up to God.

As I mentioned a moment ago, the Men’s Saturday Reunion Group at our church meets once a month at a local Episcopal Church for an extended time of prayer. For a good amount of the time, we are silently listening for God. If we are to become aligned with God and God’s will, we have to develop the habit of listening to God and allowing God to form us and speak to us in the silence of our hearts. It is hard for those of us who are active and used to being busy. It is not easy for me. Alignment and constancy in prayer are not natural. They are a gift that God gives to those who wait and desire to be one with God in important matters of the spirit.


Most Christians know that, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed to be relieved of the duty God had placed upon him. However, he ended the prayer, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:39). In other words, Jesus’ human will had become aligned with God’s will, so that now he had the strength to endure what was about to happen.

Not all of our prayers will be in easy times. Not all will have pleasant results. Our prayer, in the end, is for our human will to embrace God’s will so we may be filled with his power whatever the circumstances. Paul’s advice to lift everything up to God with Thanksgiving is as good a piece of advice today as it was in the First Century.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The scholarly sources for this sermon are William Barclay, “The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster 1975) and Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon” in The New American Commentary vol. 32, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991).

A Story to Live By

Kathy and I have been thinking a lot about maps recently. The other day, I was trying to figure out how to get from Fithian, Illinois to San Antonio, Texas through Abilene, Kansas. For the life of me, I could not close my eyes and remember where in the world Abilene, Kansas could be! I had to look it up on a map.

I have a friend who used to have a huge wall map of the world sitting in his breakfast area. world-mapI have been thinking a lot about that map because we’ve been thinking about framing a map of the world for one of our Sunday School Class rooms. Two weeks ago, I was in a mission meeting listening to a report about world missions. I was amazed at how many places there were in the world that I could not close my eyes and imagine where they are!

Without some idea of where you are and where it is you are going, it is really hard to plan a trip. The same thing is true of life. Unless we have some idea of where we are and of where we intend to go in life, we have a lot of trouble getting anywhere. One problem in our world is that a lot of the old road maps for life have changed, and people have a hard idea formulating any idea of who they are, what they were created to be, what changes are needed to be who they were intended to be, and how to get there.

Many people in our culture have a sense of rootlessness. That is to say, they live day in and day out acting on the impulses of the moment. They do not feel particularly connected to the past of their families, communities, our nation, or our culture. They are making up life as they go along. The result is often misery.

The Importance of Scripture.

Our text is from Second Timothy. This is one of Paul’s last letters, if not his last letter. He wrote it from captivity, probably in Rome (2 Tim. 1:8). The letter is to Timothy, his “son in Christ,” protégé, and assistant (See, 1:2). imagesIn it, Paul gives Timothy the best advice he can, knowing that it may be the last advice he can give to him. Here is a part of what he says:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:10-17).

Prayer: Word of God: This morning we come to a teaching that is at the center of our faith—the authority of your Word and its importance in our lives. Come by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might hunger for the wisdom only you can give. In Your Name we pray, Amen.

A Story that Leads to Christ

Last week in this blog, we visited about worship and about the Jewish temple. This week, we are visiting about another aspect of Jewish culture that is just as important to Christianity and to us—the fact that Jews and Christians are both “People of the Book.” When the Jews were taken into captivity for the second time, this time in Babylon, the temple was destroyed. In any case, it would have been a trip of hundreds of miles to visit Jerusalem, a trip no captive slave could possibly take. Therefore, the Jewish people had to maintain their heritage without the aid of temple worship. It is at this time that the Jews began to create synagogues, diligently study scripture, and compile commentaries on their Scripture. Their worship, which could not include Temple sacrifices, became centered on Scripture.

When we teach one year through the Bible studies, one thing that amazes first time readers is the extent to which the first five books of the Old Testament, what the Jews call the “Torah” or “Law,” aren’t law at all. They are the story of the history of the Jewish people up until their entry into the Promised Land. The story Scripture tells continues right up until the people return from captivity. All this time, the prophets were writing and so were the wise men. By the time it was all over, the Jews had a scripture almost identical to our Old Testament containing their national story, their hymns and songs, their wisdom teachings, and the words of those who warned them against disobedience to God. In those writings was embedded the idea of a Messiah, a Savior who would come to free them from captivity and bring them into a time of renewal.

When the early Christians read the Old Testament, they immediately began to see in the story of the Old Testament and in all of its teachings a foreshadowing of Christ. They saw Jesus as the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). They saw in Jesus the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 53). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus made sense of the human condition and of God’s intention for human life. The same thing is true today. The Bible, the written Word of God, has a purpose, and its first purpose is to lead us to Christ, to the Word of God in human form. We do not primarily read our Bibles for head knowledge, but to have a heart relationship with God. The first and most important role of Scripture is to lead us to God and to Christ.

A Story that Leads to Self-Understanding.

We find in the story the Bible tells a way of making sense of our personal story, the story of our family and friends, and the story of our world. It is a story of a people created in God’s image, but fallen and prone to err. It is the story of God’s love for every human being. It is the story of God sending his Son to free us from the past, and give us new life. It is a story that can, as Paul says, make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). The power of the Bible is such that it can lead us to God and lead us to behave and be changed into more Godly people.

Paul goes on to say that the Scriptures are useful for teaching and for rebuke (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, an important purpose of reading the Bible is to allow us and cause us to come to a better self-understanding. The Bible leads us to Christ, but it also exposes our need for Christ by exposing who we really are. And, of course, when it does this we learn that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory God intended for us (Romans 3:23).

When I was younger I taught marksmanship and archery for a while. In teaching archery, I learned an important fact. Bent arrows do not fly straight. Each early summer when the counselors got to camp, we would look at last year’s arrows, some of which had gotten damp and warped. (This is before composite and aluminum arrows.) We threw them away because no one could shoot a crooked arrow straight.

This is theologically interesting.imgres One Old Testament word for sin connotes an arrow that has gone astray and missed the mark. [1] It is as if our lives are like arrows fired by our parents and God. Unfortunately, we are crooked arrows. We are all a bit selfish and self-centered. We are all a bit bent morally and spiritually.

A Word that Leads to Correction and New Life

Worse yet (and to change metaphors), all of us have bad sights. We all aim our lives more or less away from God’s perfect intention for us that we live lives of wisdom and love. The result is that we all like sheep, go astray (Isaiah 53:6). Therefore, we all need a bit of rebuking and correcting. In a word, we need to get back on the straight road.

I am not a very good shot, and I don’t know a lot about guns. Recently I have been trying to learn to shoot. When you purchase a new weapon, you have to see if the sights are correct. If the sites are not correct, you won’t hit the target. You also have to learn to aim the weapon properly. If you do not aim at the target, you won’t hit it. Getting your sights right and getting your aim corrected are really important if you want to learn to shoot well.

Every day, I read the Bible. It is a rare week when I do not feel myself condemned by some portion of Scripture I am reading. I don’t always like this aspect of reading the Bible, but I do think it is good for me because it leads to correction. You can only read so long about the need for wise speech before you begin to speak more wisely. You can only read so often about the importance of hard work before you begin to work harder. You can only read so often about saving money before you start saving money. You can only read so long about loving others before you begin to love others.

Those in Memphis who have been in Disciple Bible studies, and more recently in the new discipling study Kathy and I are leading, know that God has been working on my heart concerning discipling people and changing the emphasis of our Bible studies. We do not primarily read our Bibles to gain new information. We read them to correct our vision and attain a new kind of life characterized by wisdom and love—God’s wisdom and love. What is important is not so much how much Bible do I know, but how much Bible am I putting to work in my life. The big question is, “Am I being corrected and living a new, different, healthier, less self-centered, less selfish, less broken, less sinful life?”

A Word that Leads to Good Works.

I have been working our way through one single sentence of Paul. Paul says that “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, for rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (I Tim. 3:16-17). Those two little words, “so that” mean that God inspired Scripture, he allows it to teach us, rebuke is, correct us, and train us for a purpose. This purpose is that we are properly equipped for every good work.

This summer, I plan on doing some hiking. My plan was to put on my old running shoes and hike. The person with whom I am going hiking pointed out to me that this was a bad idea. Running shoes lack lateral support and are built for short exercise periods, not hours and hours of walking day after day. He told me I needed new equipment if I want to hike with him. The fact is most work requires some kind of equipment. One important purpose of the Bible is to equip us for the work and life God has for us.

In Ephesians, Paul says the following:

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 2:8-9).

We are not saved by our works, that is, by doing good things; however, we were saved for good works. God has a plan to undo all the sin and all the violence and all the greed and all the misplaced passion in the world. He has the idea that people need to be respected, loved, saved from darkness, allowed to lived better lives, converted from sin, taught to live joyfully and healthily.

God saved us all right. But, let’s think back a bit: someone communicated God’s love to us. Someone shared the Gospel. Someone treated us with dignity. Someone helped us up when we were down. Someone shared an insight that helped us solve a problem. Someone invited us to church, or youth group, our Bible study, or an AA group. Someone did something when God saved us.

There is a movie I like called Pay It Forward. [2] It is the story of a young man named Trevor who has a terrible life. His mother and father are both dysfunctional. One day in class his teacher challenges them to do something to change the world. A few days later, Trevor decides to do something big for three people who really need it, with the understanding that each will pay it forward with three good deeds of their own. In Trevor’s vision, the whole world will be changed for the better as people pay good deeds forward.

It so happens and Trevor and God have the same idea. God saved us from our brokenness, and in response, he desires us to pay it forward.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] One of the many words for sin connotes missing the mark, as if an arrow missed its intended target. This is not the only connotation, for there are many Hebrew words used to connote sin. If the target of life is to live wisely in community with others, then sin is anything we do to miss this target of life.

[2] Leslie Dixon wr., based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Pay it Forward dir. by Mimi Leder, starring Keven Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment (Warner Brothers Pictures, October 20, 2000).

A Life of Constant Worship

For a long, long time, I’ve wanted to preach a sermon on worship, which I have done for the past two weeks at Advent Presbyterian Church at each pf our campuses. In this Blog, I want to center on why worship is essential to the wise life. All over America churches are struggling with worship attendance. There are a lot of reasons for this, but at the center of the problem is the notion that worship is something optional. If there is a God, it cannot be optional, because when we cease worshiping, we eventually cease recognizing that there is a wisdom greater than ours. Soon, as Paul puts it in Romans, “thinking ourselves wise, we become fools” (Romans 1:22).

I remember a day when I was in college sitting on the grass on the commons at Trinity University. imgresA group of freshmen were watching an anti-war demonstration and talking. Our conversation drifted to the subject of chapel and church attendance. A friend of mine from Oklahoma said, “I just don’t need to go to church. I can worship God anywhere.” We all agreed. Within about a year, we were all in various stages of losing our Christian faith—and none of us were behaving well at all. It was only a number of years later, after some suffering, that I realized how important worship and the Christian community are.

Worship is important to wise living; but to understand how and why, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what worship is and is not. Two weeks ago, was Palm Sunday. We thought and meditated about the cross. Last week was Easter. We thought and meditated about the resurrection. We spoke about how the lives of the apostles and disciples of Jesus were changed by those twin events. In the cross, we see the Amazing Love of God, a love so great it would give anything, even life itself, for the Beloved. In the resurrection, we see the victory of God’s Amazing Love over death.

images-2All love evokes a response. Christians have always seen worship not as a duty, but a response to God’s Amazing Love. True worship is a response to God’s love. As we respond to God’s love in worship, we ground ourselves in the source of all true wisdom and all self-giving love–a wisdom greater than natural wisdom and a love greater than natural love.

A Life of Christ-Formed Worship.

To guide our meditation, I have chosen a passage from First Peter. First Peter is one of what are called “the Catholic Epistles.” [1] The Apostle Peter wrote it to congregations in Asia Minor, probably from Rome, near the end of his life (I Peter 1:1). In this letter, Peter gives mature advice to congregations he helped plant and over which he had authority concerning essential parts of the Christian life. In this particular passage, he talks about the Christian life, but what he says is entirely relevant to the subject of worship:

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 4:4-10).

Place Centered Worship.

In this is a passage, it is evident that the writer was a Jew. Peter begins by speaking of Jesus as a “living stone” (I Peter 2:4). He speaks of Christians being built into a spiritual house (2:5). He speaks of a precious stone being laid in Zion (2:6). He speaks of Christians as a “royal priesthood” (2:9). In all of this, Peter is recalling Israel and its history.

In the ancient world temples were built of stone. Mt. Zion was the place where the Temple of the Jews was built. The Temple was manned by priesthood, a special group of people called out of ordinary living to serve the God of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem.

When Moses led the people out of captivity, he instituted a form of what we might call “Place-Centered Worship.” (Exodus 25-40) Worship was to be in the Tabernacle, a tent designed to be the place where the God of Israel was present in a special way. Aaron and the Levites were called out of the tribes of Israel and given special responsibility to supervise the worship of the Jewish people. The Tabernacle traveled with the Jews, and they believed that God was present there in a special way.

4.The_16Once Solomon became king, he built a Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the successor to the Tabernacle. No longer did the God of Israel travel around present in a special tent. Now, God was especially present in his Temple on Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem. Therefore, Jews who wanted to worship their God or make a sacrifice to their God needed to travel to Jerusalem, the place God chose for his dwelling (See, Deuteronomy 12:5).

When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they rebuilt the temple and reinstituted the form of worship they had before they left (See, Haggai, Zechariah, etc.). Right up to the time of Jesus, Israel had a place centered form of worship, and the place was the Temple.

Most churches are proud of their buildings. Over the past thirty-seven years, the people of our church have built a number of times. We are proud of the sanctuaries and facilities we have built in Cordova and Arlington. Nevertheless, we cannot come to believe our buildings are necessary for worship. People gather all over the world, sometimes in tents or under trees to worship God. Too often in the West, we have allowed ourselves to be excessively committed to a “Place Centered” kind of worship.

The Church is not the building. It is the people. We all love our worship services, whether contemporary or traditional. However, we cannot mistake a worship service or particular liturgy or style of music for true worship. True worship goes beyond a building. True worship is about God and about the human and divine spirit. It is about coming together to worship the Living God of Wisdom, Power, and Love.

Christ-Centered Worship.

Recently, a number of us have been memorizing a story from the book of John. In John 4, Jesus met a woman at a well in Samaria. Jesus was tired and thirsty, so he asked the woman to draw water for him (John 4:7). This was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, the woman was a woman, and Jewish rabbi’s seldom talked directly to women to whom they were not married. Second, she was a Samaritan, and the Jews did not like Samaritans, whom they felt were half-breeds who worshiped falsely on Mt. Gerizim not in Jerusalem where they were supposed to worship (4. 22). Finally, this woman was an immoral woman, and rabbis were never to even be seen with such a person, much less speak to them.jesuswell

Jesus and the woman got into a talk about water. Jesus asked her to fetch him a cup of physical water, and then began to talk about a kind of living water that, once you drank it, you would never be thirsty again (4:10; 13-14). The woman was amazed at this, again for several reasons. First of all, the well at which Jesus and the woman were having the conversation was one of the most famous wells in all of Jewish history. It was called Jacob’s well (4:12). Second, this woman, like all ancient women, spent hours each day going to and from the well getting water. (This is still the case in much of the world today.) Therefore, this woman is interested in this living water for purely selfish reasons.

“What is this Living Water?” The Living Water is the Holy Spirit—Jesus’ continuing presence and power with us today. Jesus promised this woman a spiritual water to wash away her sin and guilt. He promised her a living water that will allow her to live a completely new kind of life free from the problems and sin of her past. Jesus was also promising her a new kind of worship.

As Jesus and the woman began to talk about worship, the woman pointed out that both the Samaritans and the Jews had a place-centered kind of worship. For the Samaritans it was centered on Mt. Gerizim. For the Jews it was centered on Mt. Zion. She expected that Jesus would defend the Jewish position that all true worship has to take place in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion, in the Temple. Surprisingly, he did not. Instead he said:

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).

By this teaching, Jesus is alerting the woman that in him, something new is coming in the area of worship. A particular place is not going to be as important as it will be that worship be spiritual. In First Peter, Peter is talking about a post-place centered worship. He is saying that, in Jesus God was building a spiritual temple that we can be a part of as we are built up into the community of faith and become God’s priests, or sharers of grace. As we open our hearts to God, our hearts become a place of worship. God is saying the same thing to us today. God intends our worship to be a true spiritual worship that lasts all week long.

A Community of Constant Christ-Centered Worship

10922771_10206566193938639_4671154989334180850_nOne of the fundamental differences between the way ancient people saw the world and the way we see the world has to do with the role of community. Every “you” in our text is in the plural. All the verbs are in the plural. In our way of speaking it would be “all of you together are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (I Peter 2:9 (GCS paraphrase). In the ancient world, only a few chosen people were priests who interceded for the people to God. Now, we are all priests together. We are all called to worship together, declaring the praises of God as a community. We are all called to sacrifice together for the salvation and healing of the world. We are all called to live lives of worship (Romans 12:1-2).

One implication of this is that we need to meet together once a week to worship. We need to be together! In fact, that is what the early church did and what Christians have always done since the earliest times.  Jews met on Saturday to worship. Christians met on Sunday. They met to sing songs together. They met to pray together. They met to listen together to the word of God being read. They met to hear the encouragement of the apostles, sometimes, as in First Peter, that encouragement was in the form of a letter read in the service. They met to baptize new believers and to have a meal and communion together. [2] Ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, Christians have taken time to worship the Living God together weekly, singing, praying, hearing the word of God read and expounded, and having Communion.

Sunday, however, was only the beginning of the week. The people of God went from their weekly worship services out into the world where they continued to worship God in spirit and in truth by their daily lives. That is why Peter goes on to urge his readers to live lives worthy of the One who was raised from the dead and who had brought them into his Kingdom of Love (I Peter 2:11-12). This is why Paul urges the early Christians to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” as true, spiritual worship (Romans 12:1). [3]

We know that in the early church people shared their faith fearlessly. They lived in households where entire groups of people were converted, sometimes all at once. They shared their lives and belongings in ways that caused people to take note (Acts 2:42-47). They were unafraid to live differently than those around them. [4] The weekly worship was lived out in day-to day living. Just as God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lives in a communion of love, Christians are meant to live and worship in community. A God who exists in community needs to be worshiped in a community that tries to emulate the wisdom and love of the divine community in their worship and life.

In large part, the goal of the Reformers, and especially of Calvin, was to reinstate a humble, spiritual form of worship that was consistent with the intentions of Christ, the practice of the early church, and Holy Scripture, especially the worship we see in the book of Acts. The focus of their efforts was to be sure that worship was spiritual, Christ-centered, and scriptural. [5]

The Church today needs to recover the notion that we are not individuals who privately have been called into a new kind of relationship with God. We are part of a family of people who have been called to live each day in constant worship to “glorify God and enjoy him forever,” as the catechism puts it.  In order to be empowered and encouraged to live the Christian life week in and week out, we need to meet together once a week and worship in community.

A Call to Life Changing Worship.

I began this blog with an illustration of the beginning of what I would call the Post-Modern Christian perspective on worship attendance. My experience in college was just the beginning of the decline in worship we have seen in America. Worship has become increasingly unimportant to Christians in our excessively individualistic culture. In recent years, attendance has fallen in almost all denominations and in almost all churches within those denominations. This phenomenon has impacted Presbyterian churches, Baptist churches, Assemblies of God churches, and independent churches—all kinds of churches. The problem did not begin yesterday. In fact, the seeds of our crisis were sown years ago as the church, and especially the evangelical churches, increasingly adopted the personalistic, entertainment oriented nature of the surrounding culture.

In addition, Americans, even American Christians, have developed what I would call a “personal self-fulfillment search” focus on life, which has impacted churches and church attendance. Too often we seek a particular music, preacher, worship style, etc. that we find personally moving. As a pastor, I cannot complain too loudly about this, but I think it is mistaken. It is mistaken because we are called into communities of people who are bound together by both a relationship with God and with each other, not just here once a week, but in all of life. God did not mean our worship to be like going to a rock concert, but like going to a family

It is easier to complain than it is to see the way forward. The church I serve, for example, has two different worship services to meet the felt needs of two different kinds of worship preferences. Churches that cater to a younger audience surround us in our community. These congregations have a still different worship format. Each week in all these places, people worship God “in spirit and in truth.” Nevertheless, taken together, we are not reaching the vast numbers of people who never or only very seldom come to worship. Just in our area of Memphis, Tennessee, there are as many as 30,000 people who never attend worship.

Surely part of the solution is to concentrate on a kind of discipleship that encourages new believers to understand the importance of true discipleship, true life in community, and true worship. Salvation is a great thing. However, as Paul says, it has to be worked out in “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:2). Those who have a godly “fear” (Deep Respect) for God will not only understand the duty of corporate and personal worship, but will seek it with hearts aflame. Our first duty, then, is to make such disciples.

I began with an observation that living a wise, loving,  joyful, spirit-filled life is impossible without worship. Indeed, this is so. It is simply impossible to live a life in community with the Eternal God without living that life in community with others. It is simply impossible to continue to live a life infused with the Spirit of God without remaining connected to that Spirit day in and day out. For Christians, Sunday is that day we set apart for a special worship time together as a community. We believe that worship is essential to being continually connected to the source of the true wisdom, true power, and true suffering love we need to live out the example of Christ in our day to day lives. There is no substitute for true worship.

[1] See, William Barclay, “The Letters of James and Peter” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 137 ff.

[2] See, “The First Apology of Justin Martyr” in Cyril. C. Richardson, ed. Early Christian Fathers (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1970), 282-288.

[3] This is another place where the Jewishness of the Paul and the early church comes through. In the Temple, there were animal sacrifices of blood. In Jesus, this system was completed and ended. Now, the true form of sacrifice is spiritual. There are intimations of this in the Old Testament. For example, In Micah 6:8 the prophet says, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is an expression of the inadequacy of the external religion of temple sacrifice.

[4] This is not the place for me to dwell on this issue, but in my view the biggest issue for the contemporary church in America is the unwillingness of Christians to be different and live differently than the surrounding culture.

[5] There is a vast volume of literature on this. See, Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 73-84.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Love’s Ultimate Victory

There are times in all of our lives when we are hoping and praying for Easter. There are times when life has been unfair. At such times, we hope for God to intervene and undo its unfairness. There are times when life is being fair, but we are under a kind of judgment and/or time of suffering that we truly wish would end. We hope for God to shorten our suffering. There are times when we have been suffering for some time and begin to lose hope that our personal Easter will ever come. We hope against hope that God will come quickly. There are times when we have suffered a death in our relationships or career. We hope God will resurrect the death of hope we are suffering. There is that time when we know that our time on this earth grows short. We hope that this world is not the end. The Message of Easter is this: Death is not the final word. Love wins in the end. Amazing Love Main Graphic

Years ago, Kathy and I had two friends, a young couple, who desperately wanted to have children. It seemed impossible. They had been married for several years when we got married and trying to have children for most of that time. They were very strong Christians, but it seemed to the doctors that it was not possible for them to have children. Finally, they decided to adopt. About a year later, they discovered that they were going to have a baby. All those years of sorrow were swallowed up in a moment of joy. Love finally had its victory.

The First Easter

This year our Lenten meditations have all been on the Amazing Love of God. Last week, we meditated on the cross and on the death of Jesus, which John tells us embodied God’s love for the world—a love so deep and powerful that it would endure the cross )John 3:16; I John 4:8-9). The cross and the resurrection belong together. The cross is God’s judgment on the sin, brokenness, and evil of our world. The resurrection is God’s validation of the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus and this promise to us of eternal life with him.

The text for this week is from Mark 16:1-8:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:1-8).

Prayer: This Easter season, O God, we ask that the power of the Risen Messiah, Jesus the Christ would come into all of our hearts and minds. Give us all a new outpouring of your Holy Spirit this day and each and every day. In His Name we pray, Amen.

A Fearful Beginning

images-2As we have seen, the last week of Jesus’ life was a week of growing pressure, gloom, and disappointment for the disciples. Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, a symbol of his continuity with Solomon and other “Sons of David” who sat on the throne of Israel was the highpoint of a week of disappointment. All week long, until his death, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Priests and the Teachers of the Law opposed him. Finally, on Thursday night, he was betrayed and deserted by everyone. Even Peter, the “Rocky Balboa of the Disciples” denied and deserted him. Then, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. There was no appeal process. He was marched straight to Calvary, the Place of the Skull, where he was crucified. Near dusk on Friday, he died, and Joseph of Arimathea quickly claimed the body and buried him in his personal tomb so that the Passover would not come before his burial (Mark 15:42:46). Mark’s description of the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus ends by noting that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses knew where he was buried (15:47).

There is a lot packed into that one sentence. The disciples did not know where Jesus was buried because they were scattered, hiding in fear, afraid of the authorities and what might happen next, disillusioned, and desperate. Only the women knew. They had gone with Joseph to the tomb and watched as the body was hastily interred. They planned to return on Sunday to anoint the body.

No one expected Jesus to rise from the tomb or find it empty when Passover was over. They knew Jesus was dead, and they knew that dead people do not return to life. We sometimes believe mistakenly that the ancients did not know things we know. That is not true when it comes to things like virginal births and a man rising from the dead. What made Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ resurrection so important to the early church was precisely the fact that they were impossible. If true, they forced a complete conversion and a different way of seeing reality.

All of us, ancient and modern, have a way we see the world. We observe things happening and not happening. We conclude that things we see happening over and over again will keep happening. We also conclude that things we do not see happening will not happen in the future. Death is one of those things that we have certain expectations about what will and will not happen next. We expect the person to stay dead, and we do not expect a resurrection.

Sometimes, we are glad we know these regularities. Sometimes we are not so glad. For example, when we are suffering and our suffering goes on for a long time, we sometimes conclude it will never end. Experience begins to tell us this is going to be true. This was the condition of the followers of Jesus Friday and Saturday before the first Easter. Jesus was dead. He was going to stay dead. All of their hopes and dreams died with him, and they expected those hopes and dreams to stay dead.

A Surprise Announcement

imgres 5.00.25 PMAll four gospels are unanimous in recording that it was the women who found the tomb empty on that first Easter morning (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). As we learn from Mark, they came to the tomb to finish embalming the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1). They knew that Jesus had been placed in a wealthy person’s tomb, and there was a large stone capping the tomb that would have to be rolled away (16:3). They were not sure that they were strong enough to roll away the stone and, because it was very early, they wondered if anyone would be around to roll away the stone.

When they arrived, they were amazed and confused. The stone was already rolled away (Mark 16:4). As they began entering the tomb, they were faced with another amazing fact: There was an angel in the tomb waiting for someone to arrive! The angel made what is probably the most famous announcement in world history: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (16:6-7).

There is a lot of hope for us in these words. First of all, God has vindicated Jesus who died for our sins on the cross. Secondly, by the power of the resurrection God has declared his judgment fulfilled and our reconciliation complete if only we believe. Third, this gracious gift of forgiveness and new life is offered to his disciples who deserted him, even Peter who denied him. It is offered to everyone however far from God. God is not finished with the disciples, with us, or with the human race. In the person of the Risen Christ, God has gone ahead of us, and now by the power of his Holy Spirit draws us into his future of mercy, wisdom, and love.

Our old expectations, the certainties by which we normally navigate life have been superseded by an even greater certainty: This world is not all there is. Our current problems are not all there is. Our current limitations are not all there is. The Risen Christ has given us a new hope, a hope against all hope. By the resurrection, God promises us an eternal fellowship with the Risen Christ.

An Eternal Presence

By the resurrection, Jesus was restored to his disciples. The fellowship they once had was restored, not just for a time, a few days while he walks the earth in his resurrected body, but forever. Nothing, not even death can separate them or us from the love of God (Romans 8:38). Here is how Paul puts it in Romans:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:32-39).

Nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God. God’s power will always be with us.

What Good News this is! In Matthew, when Jesus gives the disciples the Great Commission, he promises to be with them always, always “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In Luke, Jesus promises his disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In John, Jesus breathes upon the disciples after his resurrection, symbolically giving them the promised breath of God (John 20:22-23). In Acts, Jesus promises them the power of the Holy Spirit—a promise kept on Pentecost (Acts 1:8). The promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise that Jesus will always be with his people until the end of time with the power of God’s Spirit of Amazing love.

On Good Friday, Jesus died for our sins on the cross. On Easter, he rose from the dead as a sign of God’s New Creation in him and of the power of his life-giving sacrifice in our lives. This is not something we feel just once, when we come to believe in God, but something we can always experience. His forgiving love is always there for us when we fall short and fail. His cleansing power is always there to cleanse us from guilt and shame. His power to overcome the past and bring new life is always there for his people.

Often, we see Christians who begin the Christian life with joy and in the power of the Spirit. Unfortunately, slowly, ever so slowly, they begin to make of Christian faith a religion of works and duties. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, the joy and power of the Spirit fades from their lives. Old, bad habits recur. This does not have to be! God is always present for his people to undo the effects of sin in our lives. We can live a life of victory over sin and death, if we will only accept God’s gracious offer of salvation and become disciples of the Risen Christ.

A Love that Will Not Fail

Jesus’ Amazing Love is with us when we fall short, when we are called to sacrifice for others, when times are tough in our nation, city, or families. God’s resurrection power is always with us and never fails. This is the sign of Christian hope.

This week a passage from Romans came to me during my quiet time. In Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an example of the power of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Abraham wanted a son, and he believed God had promised him that son although he and his wife, Sarah, were too old to have children. For years and years, Abraham held onto that promise. Finally, Paul tells us, God honored the hope that Abraham had by faith, and he was given a son of the promise God had made (Romans 4:7). Paul goes on to say:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:5-9).

The life of which Paul speaks is resurrection life by the power of the same Holy Spirit that resurrected Jesus from the dead. The God who gave his only Son to save the world on the cross (John 3:16) will save us through the power of the eternal life the Son has received as a result of the resurrection (Romans 5:9). This same God can be trusted to resurrect each one of God’s children to an unimaginable life. God’s Amazing Love is finally going to win.Amazing Love Main Graphic

The hardest part of every Easter message is how to end it. The story ends with the women afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb, perhaps from fear that people will think they are crazy. I think their fear is our fear as well. But, the ending of Mark is not the end of the story. The women did in fact overcome their fear and tell the disciples and Peter (Matthew 28:8-16; Luke 24:9; John 20:1-3). We know that because of the other Gospels and also because we are here today!

In the same way we must go and overcome our fears. We too must go and proclaim to our own generation the Good News that sin and death do not have the final victory. In the end, God’s Amazing Love wins. [1] In the end, wisdom and love are more powerful than armies. This is a message that our dying culture and violent world desperately need to hear again and again.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), 99. In writing this, I am also indebted to Thomas Torrance, Space, Time, and Resurrection (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1976 and John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), both of which I reread and consulted in preparing to write.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Amazing Love: Suffering Love

Amazing Love Main GraphicWhen I wrote my dissertation, one question I asked all the pastors and elders I interviewed concerned times when they had to bear a cross on behalf of the people of God. Interestingly, nearly every pastor and elder confirmed some story about a time when they had sacrificed for the good of the congregation. One pastor told of a time when his rapidly growing congregation had to build twice while he had children in college. Being the pastor, he felt he needed to both tithe and give generously to building campaigns. It was a long hard time. 

One of the most meaningful to me was a pastor who led an inner city congregation in a declining area. He reached the conclusion that the only way to save the congregation was to move. Naturally, some of the families in the congregation, who had been in the church for generations, and whose parents and in some cases grandparents had built the existing church, were horrified at the idea. The Session voted to move. The pastor successfully moved the church into a growing area—but those opposed caused difficult problems for him during the rest of his ministry. A former Associate Pastor told me that this fine pastor grew old before his eyes during those years. This week at our Session meeting, I shared with the Session a couple of times that Kathy and I have had to suffer in order that a church might grow and prosper.

One of the most difficult things to get our arms around in the Bible is the cross. Why did Jesus have to die a terrible death? Why did Jesus say that if anyone wants to be my disciple, let him (or her) take up his or her cross and follow me? (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 23). Why does Paul say that he completes in his body the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the church? (Colossians 1:24).

The Way His Life Ended

This morning, we come to the mystery of the cross. I use the term “mystery” because no human words can fully comprehend what God was doing on the cross. No human wisdom can fully penetrate its meaning. As we shall see, the disciples and Paul struggled all the days of their lives to communicate to others the depth of God’s love—a love that, beyond all expectations, died for the human race. the-passion-of-the-christHere is how it happened:

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. … At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. … Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last (Mark 15:25; 33-37).

A Long and Difficult Week

This Lenten season, we’ve been walking with Jesus through the last week of his life in this blog. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, where we began our Journey to the Empty Tomb: with Jesus’ triumphal entrance into the City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith. The crowds welcomed Jesus as if he were the long-awaited Messiah. This worried the leaders of the people. They were afraid of what the Romans would do if Jesus tried to lead a rebellion. They also feared a rebellion against the Temple religion of which they were the priests and legal interpreters. Even natural enemies, like the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, who did not, were united in their dislike of the rabbi Jesus bar Joseph from the little village of Nazareth. They united in their attempts to trick him, turn the crowds and the Romans against him, and get rid of him. 

From the beginning of the week, things got darker and darker for Jesus.

We don’t know exactly when or why Judas Iscariot decided to betray Jesus. The best guess is that Judas, like the other disciples, initially hoped that Jesus was the Messiah. He hoped that Jesus would get rid of the hated Romans and the corruption of Temple faith. Perhaps Judas was disappointed that Jesus was not doing more to avoid death and begin a rebellion. [1] Sometime during the week, perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday, Judas must have contacted the Chief Priests or the Temple guards offering to betray Jesus. Similarly, Jesus knew something was up and suspected Judas (John 16:24). In any case, by the time of the last supper, Judas had decided to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:23; Mark 14:20; Luke 22:21; John 13:26). 

 Thursday night, the disciples celebrated a Passover meal together. At the meal, Jesus spoke of his body and blood that would be shed for his disciples (Mark 14:22-25). When he announced that one of the Twelve would betray him, he set off a competition as to who would be the most loyal. When Peter announced that he would never betray Jesus, Jesus foretold that he would indeed deny him three times (14:27-31). In the end, of course they all deserted him, even Peter.


After dinner, amid the gathering gloom, they went off to the Garden of Gethsemane, by which time Jesus clearly understood that he was about to be betrayed, suffer and die (Mark 14:32-42). While he was there praying, about midnight, Judas arrived with the Temple Guards, betrayed him, and he was arrested (14:43-52). Sure enough, just as he foretold, they all deserted him (14:50). 

He was taken to the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jewish people, there, the High Priests, the teachers of the law, and the other leaders of the people tried him, and he was condemned to death (14:53-65). The entire affair was illegal—Jewish law forbade trials at night, and it must by now have been very early Friday morning. It was then that Peter denied, betrayed him, and fled (15:66-72). Jesus was left entirely alone, betrayed and abandoned. 

While the Jews could convict Jesus of heresy, a crime punishable by death under their own law, it was not possible under Roman law for Jesus to be executed except by Roman command. [2] Therefore, very early in the morning, the Sanhedrin transferred Jesus to Pilate. He was taken across the city to where Pilate was and examined by him (Mark 15:1-5). Pilate suspected that Jesus was guilty of no capital offense under Roman law. This is why Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews (15:2). Jesus said nothing that could be used to execute him. Only if some violation of Roman law could be found could he be executed.

At some point, Pilate was reminded that it was his custom to to release a prisoner during the Passover celebration as a sign of goodwill (Mark 14:8). Perhaps, he felt certain that, if he offered the Jews a choice between a true criminal, Barabbas, and Jesus, the crowd would surely choose Jesus to be released. Pilate offered the crowd the choice, and to his utter surprise, the crowd chose Barabbas (15:11). His hands now tied, Pilate washed his hands of the whole terrible affair, and turned Jesus over to be crucified (15:15). First, He had Jesus flogged.

A Terrible End

By this time, Jesus had been flogged, and his back was probably torn to pieces (Mark 15:15). He had been awake more than twenty-four hours and was tired. He was also probably weak from hunger, not having eaten since the night before. He was publically humiliated: the soldiers mocked him (15:16-50). As was the custom, Jesus carried the cross upon which he was to be crucified, or at least the crossbar of the cross, through the center of the city, down what we call the Way of Tears (Via Delarosa). He was so weak that a visitor to the city, Simon of Cyrene, was asked to carry the cross part of the way to Golgotha, the place of the skull, just outside the city gates. There, he was crucified.

The soldiers, now making fun of the Jews generally, put a sign above his head, “The King of the Jews.” This was intended, probably, to send a message to any other Messianic pretender and also to humiliate the Priests, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and all those who conspired to put him there (Mark 15:25). Somewhere in the afternoon, before dark and the beginning of the Passover, Jesus cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:33-34). It was a quote from Psalm 22—an invocation of faith and hope as well as a sign of dereliction. A few moments later he cried out one last time and died (15:37).

As darkness came, Joseph of Arimathea took down his body, got permission from Pilate to bury him, and placed him in a tomb (Mark 15:12-47). Jesus had died in the most unimaginably painful and humiliating way: almost naked, exposed, treated as a criminal, outside the city, deserted by everyone. This was not the way the Messiah was supposed to die.

An Amazing Love

Amazing Love Main GraphicAt the time, no one understood what had happened. His disciples were scattered. Those who remained in Jerusalem were in fear of their lives. A few women were willing to anoint the body after Passover (Mark 15:47-16:1). Years later, the Apostle Paul described the event as beyond human imagination. Here is what he says in First Corinthians

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;

    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Cor. 1:18-25). 

 We human beings simply do not have words or intellectual categories to describe what happened on the Cross. Virtue should be rewarded, not punished. Love should be victorious, not end up dying on a cross. Wisdom should prevail, not be destroyed. How are we to even begin to understand this? 

 Paul takes the position that we can never understand the cross on the basis of human wisdom. No secular person, no “Greek,” can understand a god who would give himself up on a cross for the sins of the world. No “Jew,” a religious person who believes that wisdom should be rewarded with long life and riches, can understand the cross. No religion that proclaims, “Love your friends and punish your enemies” can understand what happened on the cross. No worldly wisdom that proclaims “Do unto others before they do unto you” can understand the cross. Only those who can perceive a love so much greater than human love at work that it cannot hardly be imagined or understood can understand the cross. It is just as hard to understand today as it was 2000 years ago. 

The Meaning of Holy Week 

 Next week is Holy Week. All the events that we talked about in this blog since early February occurred in one week. All the events that we have spoken of today occurred in one day: next Thursday evening through next Friday evening. It is the most important week of human history.

On Sunday, a charismatic Rabbi entered the city of Jerusalem, and everyone hoped they would see the arrival of their expected Messiah. The next Sunday, a few women announced to a disbelieving world that the charismatic rabbi was the Risen Son of God. In between, he was persecuted, died, and was buried.

images-2His cross has become the symbol of the religion he founded, because his followers see in that cross a disclosure of the very being of God—sheer, unconditional, unimaginable, self-giving love. And, against all worldly wisdom, we have committed ourselves to becoming people transformed by this very love. In truth and in fact, the cross cannot be understood except by those who have walked as disciples with the One who suffered and died upon it. [3]

There is no understanding the the deepest mysteries of human life until the cross and empty tomb become the center of our vision of the world—a world created for freedom, hopeless lost to sin, redeemed by a loving God in a way no one could possibly have foreseen. In the words of John Polkinghorne:

He is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer, who has himself absorbed the full force of evil. In the lonely figure hanging in the darkness and dereliction of Calvary, the Christian believes that he sees God opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. The God revealed in the vulnerability of the incarnation and in the vulnerability of creation are one. He is the crucified God, whose paradoxical power is perfected in weakness, whose self-chosen symbol is the King reigning from the gallows. [4]

Book Cover.pegAs I put it in Path of Life, on the Cross we see revealed the truth that God not only reigns in glory over his creation, but paradoxically, suffers the travail of its finitude, incompleteness, sin, and suffering. In the end, Christians believe that the One Greater than Wisdom came and in his coming moves our thinking and understanding to a new level. At the cross we come to understand that God does not stand outside our human suffering. Instead, in Christ God is a fellow sufferer with each human being who suffers for whatever reason. This is the kind of Messiah God intended for us. [5]

I began this series of meditations with the observation that Protestants move too quickly from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—from victorious entrance to Jerusalem to victory over the grave. This can lead to a kind of triumphalism in which we expect as disciples to go from victory to victory with Jesus. This creates an unbalanced and unrealistic Christian faith. It forgets the cost of victory, which is death, a death on a cross. It is a cost believers have had to pay from time to time throughout history that others may live and prosper. This week is a time to celebrate, but ours should be a solemn celebration. This week we remember the cost of our peace with God.

[1] One of the possible explanations is that Judas expected Jesus to declare his Messiahship and begin a rebellion. When it seemed that he was going to bumble along and get himself arrested and killed, he changed sides.

[2] See, James Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1983), 18-25. It is from this source that I refer when saying that a night trial was not legal and that the Jews could not execute Jesus. This was possible only under Roman law.

[3] See, Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986). Those who know of my years at seminary know that no one book has been more important in my thinking about Jesus and the Church, and no writer more important than Leslie Newbigin. He was the most important person and writer in the development of my thinking about the church, about how to minister to our culture, and about a Christian response to secular ideology.

[4] John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1989), 79.

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 192. I have rephrased the ending of this chapter for this blog.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Love in Uncertain Times

YA002972Kathy likes terriers. When we talk about getting a dog, she is always trying to make me choose between Fox Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Westies, and a few other terrier breeds. There are problems with all terriers, however. They are small. They were bred to hunt rats and other vermin. They are extremely aggressive. If they are not trained properly, they think they are in charge of the entire family. When attacked, even by a child, they can bite. All in all, I prefer Golden Retrievers who are easy to train and happily fit into almost any situation.

Nevertheless, when I practiced law, I had a statute of a Fox Terrier in my office. Most people in those days thought it was appropriate, since I was small, aggressive, and occasionally bit when attacked. In fact, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, it is possible that I was a terrier in some prior life. I am telling this little story to make a point: What I have to say does not come naturally. In fact, quite the opposite: by nature, I am not a pacifist or inclined to let things go wrong without a fight. 

 Several weeks ago, one of our members related to me that a prominent media figure had challenged American pastors to preach on ISIS and on events in the Middle East. At the time, I thought that I did not want to do it. However, as I was reading the text for this week and contemplated the blog for the week, it seemed to me that, as much as I hesitate to give my opinion on certain issues, perhaps today’s post meets a need.

Troubled Times

In this blog, I want to talk about “Amazing Love in Troubled Times.” It is easy to act wisely and love people when times are easy. It is harder to be wise and love people when times are tough and we feel threatened. As Jesus noted, it is easy to love our friends and families. It is harder to pray for and love enemies (Matthew 5:44).

imgresMark 13 is sometimes called a little apocalypse because Jesus here describes the destruction of the temple and also speaks of troubled times for all believers in all times to the very end of time. I cannot reproduce here the entire chapter. I suggest interested readers take a look at the entire chapter as they read the blog and ponder its message. Here is what Mark says about the end of the temple and by implication the end of time:

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:5-11). 

Jesus Faced Danger and Opposition 

 The last week of his life, Jesus faced unrelenting opposition. The Gospels are unanimous that the High Priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and other leaders of the people early on looked for ways to get rid of Jesus. There were several possibilities. They could discredit him before the people by forcing him to say things that would turn the people against him. They could trick him into saying things that would cause the Roman government to arrest him. They could arrest him for false teaching and convict him of heresy. They could find a way to have him killed. In fact, they tried all of these ways to get rid of him. Eventually, the succeeded.

Let me give you a few examples: On Jesus’ third day in Jerusalem, the authorities questioned his habit of speaking as if he possessed divine authority (Mark 11:27-35). Jesus responded with a parable about a landowner who sends his son to check on the harvest (Mark 12:1-11). The son is killed by the tenants— a direct reference to the Chief Priests, teachers of the law, and elders. By implication, Jesus was the true son, while they were only dishonest tenants.

The authorities responded by trying to get Jesus to deny Caesar’s authority to tax the Jews—a popular position with the crowd, but sure to get Jesus arrested by the Romans. Jesus responded by pointing out that people should render to Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Mark 12:17). The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, tried to confuse him with resurrection riddles. He avoided them by pointing out that in the resurrection there will be no marriage, and he defended the doctrine of the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27). In all these events and more, the leaders of the people were simply trying to trick Jesus, confuse Jesus, and cause him to lose support from the common people. Jesus responded with wisdom and the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is remarkable is that Jesus never lashed out. He never played the same game as the leaders of the people were playing. He answered questions shrewdly but honestly. He exposed hypocrisy. He avoided trap after trap. He came out of every conflict unshaken. Perhaps there is a message for us: When times are tough, when we face enemies, when we are being tested—it is at these times when our capacity to show the world the wisdom and love of God is the most important. It is when we act and speak in the power of the Spirit that we are most effective. 

We Face Danger and Opposition 

 As I mentioned earlier, some weeks ago a member came to me and asked if I would preach on ISIS. I don’t know all the facts, but I am told that on a national television show there was a discussion about Christian faith and the problems of the Middle East. ISIS is, at least to some degree, motivated by a particular interpretation of Islam to engage in a war to create in the Middle East what is called a “Caliphate”. A caliphate is an Islamic state led by a “Caliph,” a political and religious leader, a direct successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His power and authority is absolute. [1]

It is important to remember that not all Muslims share the radical ideas of ISIS, nor do all Muslims believe that the violence and cruelty of ISIS reflects a correct understanding of Islam. On the program, however, a representative of the Middle Eastern cultures critiqued Christianity by reminding the audience that, during the Middle Ages, Christians several times attempted to create a Christian state in what is today Israel by what are called today the “Crusades.” He was making the point that Christians have sometimes violated our own deepest convictions in the search for power or to respond to threats. We don’t want be guilty of the same thing in responding to today’s threats.

 In recent weeks, the United States and our allies have had to try to slow down the advance of ISIS in parts of Syria and Iraq by force. In response, ISIS has threatened terror attacks against several Western nations, including the United States of America. The President of Egypt has been fighting a battle against a Libyan offshoot of ISIS. It is really a very complex and dangerous thing that is happening. We all ought to pray about what is going on because it could easily end in a war.

ISIS is not the only pressure Americans, and American Christians, experience. The fact is that our nation and our faith face threats. So the question arises, “What should we do in response?” and “How should we behave?” These are important questions because it is important that as Christians we behave with the wisdom and love of God and encourage our neighbors and nation to do the same. One big contribution Christians can make to our nation, so caught up in simplistic and sometimes irrational and unloving politics, is to bear witness to a better way—a way of wisdom and love. 

Jesus Reacted in Love 

 Not to be simplistic, but the first thing might be to ask, “What would Jesus do?” “How did Jesus face opposition and impending persecution and death during his last week of life?” Clearly, the answer is that Jesus continued to be Jesus. He continued to preach and teach concerning the Kingdom of God. He continued to point out where the Priests, Scribes, Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, and leaders of his people had gone astray. He was willing to take action, as he did as he was cleansing the Temple. On the other hand, he never overreacted however badly provoked.

A second thing we can  do is to love our enemies. 

In Matthew, Jesus says the following in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).00000000000000065836

Jesus’ behavior when he was arrested and tried indicates that he was cooperating with God’s will and responding as peaceably and lovingly as possible. When a follower drew his sword, he stopped the attack, healed the guard, and said: Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 25:52-53). Jesus’ peaceful response to violence was not because he could not respond; he chose not to respond with violence. When Jesus had to speak to the Sanhedrin, the Priests, Pilate, and Herod, he was filled with the Spirit and spoke wisely. 

 On the cross, when he was about to die, Jesus looked down upon those who had crucified him and said, “Father, forgive them, for the do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). All during his last week, amid all the opposition, violence, and troubles he faced, Jesus continued to be a peacemaker. Even at the end, when he might have cursed his enemies, be forgave them. What Amazing Love.

When the disciples and apostles looked back upon this behavior, they were astounded. Paul, in Romans, puts it this way: “ For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10). What amazed Paul was that God loved him and the human race even though they were acting as enemies of God. Later in the First Century, John writes, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I John 3:16). God, it seems, is in the business of loving his enemies and those who oppose him even as he may have to act to correct them. He wants his people to act in the very same way, as hard as it may be for us.

The implications for us are clear: Somehow, we have to love our enemies, even those who threaten our existence. Whatever governments and armies may have to do, as Christians we must be motivated by love and continue to show love, even for our enemies. 

Making it Work in the Real World 

 This is not the place for a long dissertation on Just War Theory; however, the as we think about a Christian response to ISIS, here are four principles to keep in mind. For Christians to use force (i) There must be a grave threat by an aggressor; (ii) The damage the aggressor can inflict upon a nation or community must be significant, lasting, and certain; (iii) There must be no practical or effective way of deterring the aggressor except through the use of force; and (iv) The force used must not result in greater evils than the aggressor threatens. [2] The goal, from beginning to end, must be to create a just peace.images

Once a conflict begins, Just War Theory demands that the conflict be conducted humanely, avoiding indiscriminate violence against civilians, and especially violence against women and children who are not engaged in the conflict. [3]Generally, Christian Just War Theory restricts Christian nations to use no greater force than necessary to achieve a just end. In broad terms, Christians must not love violence. We must promote peace whenever possible and be slow to resort to the use of arms. However, we may use force when it is necessary. Evil must not be allowed to remain unchecked. [4] 

 I’ve been a pastor for a long time now, and I’ve noticed that laypeople often think of pastors, including me, as being both different from ordinary people and slightly disconnected from reality, especially as regards conflict. This is sometimes true, but not always. Our pastor in Houston was a very peaceful, conflict-avoidant person. This did not mean he was a pansy. He spent the Second World War in a submarine in the South Pacific. The casualty rates in the Submarine Service in World War II ensured that pansy’s did not seek such duty. [5] I have mentioned my father who, throughout World War II and thirty-five years in the FBI, remained a man of peace in a world of war and conflict. Jesus resisted evil, controlled his impulses and worked for peace and blessedness in a world of conflict. So should we. [6] In all of the challenges we face as a nation and as individuals, we should keep in mind the Beatitude that reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”(Matthew 5:9).

The Little Apocalypse of Mark 

 Throughout his last week of life, Jesus constantly warned his followers about the destruction of the Temple to come and the persecutions they would face as a result. Jesus could see that the current situation would not continue forever and that the destruction of the Temple and a new Jewish time of suffering were on the horizon. In Biblical terms, the long awaited “Day of the Lord” was at hand (Mark 13:24). [7] As he spoke of that terrible day, he was concerned to remind his disciples that they were in God’s hands. They needed to be prudent, but they did not need to worry. They would be persecuted, but they would be given the right words to say when drug before authorities just as Jesus was being given the words to say in the face of the opposition of the leaders of the people (Mark 13:9-11).

Jesus also did not want them or us to overreact. This is why he warns them that there will be false Messiah’s and wars and rumors of wars (Mark 13:5). Jesus wanted them to know that history was going to unfold just has history had unfolded in the past (Mark 13:5-8). Just as God is patient, he wants his people to be patient in the face of threats and dangerous times. 

This is hard for Americans and for American Christians because we are an active and sometimes impulsive people. Nevertheless, we need to remember to be patient and wise.

We cannot be sure when Jesus will come and rescue his people nor do we know exactly how (Mark 13:42-35). What we do know is that God loves his people and intends to rescue us when the time is right. That applies to the end of time and it applies to every bad time in between the times. What we must do is remain faithful to God, to Christ, and to the wisdom and love God has promised to give us. We Americans have been lucky. We have not been persecuted until recently. Our nation has been spared attacks on civilian centers. We have not experiences the horrors of war that other nations have experienced since the American Civil War. Unfortunately, it may be that our good fortune may not continue forever. We should pray it does.

 I am afraid that today’s blog is long and not entirely satisfactory. The scope of the subject is too vast for me to possibly do it justice in a short article. All I can do is scratch the surface and urge readers to do their own investigation. As I mentioned earlier, we do live in challenging times. To face these times as Jesus faced his challenging times we need all the wisdom and all the steadfast love God can give us. It is quite possible that the greatest service we can do for our nation is to model a kind of peaceful reasonableness in the midst of negative politics, media hype, denigration of Christian faith, and all the other negative aspects of our culture. As we do so we can rest assured that “God’s Amazing Love” wins in the end. 

 Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved. 

 [1] (Downloaded March 19, 2015).

[2] There are various ways of expressing the principles of Just War Theory. This is but one, simple and short way. From the time of Augustine, through Thomas Aquinas, and to the present day Christians have continued to struggle with the best expression

 [3] There is a Muslim expression of these very principles, and one way in which the Fundamentalist, ISIS war of terror violates Muslim principles is in the way violence is being used against women, children, and other non-combatants. 

[4] (Downloaded March 19, 2015). I have basically quoted this website. Sometimes I call the basic Christian approach to war “Just War Pacifism.” War is a last resort. Christians should always regard it as such. However, when peaceful means are exhausted, Christians may engage in war.


[5] During World War II, the U.S. Navy’s submarine service suffered the highest casualty percentage of all the American armed forces, losing twenty percent of all submariners. See, (Downloaded, March 18, 2015).


[6] In Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love  Rev. Ed (Memphis, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014), there are many sections in Centered Living/Centered Leading that deal with conflict and war. This week, I read the following:

“Those who wisely lead or assist those who lead avoid using force to attain an objective.

Wise shepherds resort to force or compulsion only when there is no other alternative.

Force normally brings a violent response; it is contrary to the Way.

A wise leader remembers this: the strong weaken over time.

Wherever there is conflict or coercion, true accomplishment seldom results.

Therefore, wise shepherds are patient.”

This secion ends with the reflection, “Fighting and violence violate God’s Deep Love. Conflict is not the deepest Way of the One Who Is.” (Chapter 30). There are many such references in the Tao and in my Christian adaptation.


[7] The Old Testament is filled with prophesies of the Day of the LORD, a day in which God will act in vengeance on his enemies and establish his kingdom of righteousness. See, William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 303-324.