Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Missional Rewards

Jesus would spare us from wasted lives and wasted eternities! He wants us to know eternal blessing and reward. This we must understand if we are to be effective as his missional people. In Matthew 10: 40 - 11:1 from Jesus’ Sermon on Mission, he explains who it is that will be rewarded…and why.

Those will be rewarded who believe personally the testimony about Jesus. When Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” (40) he is speaking, first, of trusting & believing the witness of his twelve original disciples. Following their deaths, it was the apostolic testimony – written down in the texts of the NT – which have born witness to his life, death, and resurrection for the past 20 centuries.

Romans 10: 17 says that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” To hear that word is to be awakened to the truth of one’s sinfulness, moved to repentance and faith, and set on the road to eternal life. To share that word is to join the chain of witnesses stretching back to the first disciples. Friends, we would not know Christ apart from the word that bears witness to him. It is through his word that we learn of Jesus’ compassion for the sick and grieving, the lonely and hungry, the harassed and helpless and those who are running far from God. It is through his word that we learn we have the spiritual authority to represent him as his missional people. It is through his word that we understand who we are and how we are to live.

But can we really trust this word about Jesus? My first response to that question would be, "Read it, and find out." The word of Christ is self-authenticating. As we sit down and read his word, asking him to reveal himself through it, we will discover its supernatural power and relevance for our lives. I am sure of this...because I've experienced it again and again. I would also commend to you Mark D. Robert's book, Can We Trust the Gospels? When we read the gospels with the mind and with the heart of faith, we hear the very words of God. Notice that Jesus did not say that welcoming him is like welcoming the One who sent him but that in welcoming him we welcome God; that in honoring his word we are honoring God’s word. (John 12: 48-49); that in receiving his forgiveness and his grace, we are receiving the forgiveness and grace of God himself. When we know that those will be rewarded who believe personally the testimony of Jesus….we will share it.

Secondly, those will be rewarded who join communally the fellowship of Jesus.
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet…and whoever welcomes a righteous person…none of these will lose their reward.” When Jesus speaks of welcoming a prophet or a righteous person, he is speaking of those who welcome his followers. More than this, he is talking about the reward and blessing of “joining one’s self to the fellowship of Jesus’ followers, i.e., the Church.

Years ago, I visited a Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt. I and my friends were treated to a delicious meal; and a grand tour of this beautiful city. Standing on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, I wondered that in this far away place I could meet people who were my brothers and sisters in Christ. And then I remembered….Jesus and his people had been in this land for 20 centuries. Mark was said to have first preached his gospel in Alexandria; and the gospel message that was shared here had travelled thousands of years and thousands of miles to reach me in America. I was returning home…and though the language and surroundings were strange, the presence of Christ and his people was tangible, warm and familiar. Through his church, I was experiencing the truth of Heb. 13: 8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”

There is a beautiful phrase in the Book of Acts where the early church is described. “And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” I believe that as we are faithfully carrying our Savior’s work in prayer and ministry…he will draw others to himself. When we welcome God’s people, and when we become part of the fellowship of God’s people – we will not lose our reward; the closeness, the forgiveness, the unlikely oneness, and the purpose we share as his missional people. When we know that others will be similarly rewarded who join the fellowship of Jesus…we are eager to welcome and invite them to join us.

Finally, those will be rewarded who support practically the ministry of Jesus.
For “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple… none of these will lose their reward.” Three times, Jesus uses the phrase “in the name of.” “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet,” or a righteous person “in the name of” a righteous person, or gives a cup of cold water “in the name of” a disciple will not lose their reward. This little phrase “in the name of” means “convinced that they are” or “in accordance with the honor that is due.” It means that the person is treated well, that they are greeted with honor and respect and supported practically. Jesus is envisioning his disciples on a journey to neighboring towns and describing those who open their homes and support and encourage that ministry.

Whether one welcomes the proclaimer of the gospel (the prophet’s ministry) or the doer of the gospel (the righteous person) or a newborn disciple of Jesus –there is a great reward promised. Notice that Jesus is honored when one of his followers are given even a cup of cold water; and (by extension) that we can support Jesus’ mission in the most simple ways. A cup of cold water can go a long way to demonstrating to the world the grace and truth of Christ. More people die each year from unsafe drinking water than from all forms of violence, including war! More than a billion people—one in every five on earth—do not have access to safe drinking water. There are many ministries today that are sharing the gospel by bringing clean water to places in the world that do not have it. Google "Clean Water Ministries" and you'll see what I mean.

What are some other ways that we give a cup of cold water to the least of these? We do it when we feed the hungry, when we welcome international students, when we care for widows, orphans, unwed mothers, or children in need. This week, I'm thinking about a 17 year old boy by the name of Stephen Holdridge who is very ill at Loma Linda Hospital. Ellery and Renee, his parents, have devoted the last 17 years of their life to caring for this miracle child. Born with a heart defect that deprived him of oxygen; he became one of the first babies in the nation to receive a heart transplant that saved his life; but his brain function was severely compromised. Since that time, Stephen has been hospitalized numerous times…and come back from the brink of death again and again and again. Anyone who has met Stephen knows that he has a kind and gentle way about him…truly one of God’s beloved “little ones.” We’ve learned that mission begins in our own backyard; and Renee and Ellery, from the beginning have embraced that truth. They never threw up their hands in anger or despair; they chose to see Stephen as a gift from God to their family. I have no doubt that they have loved him as Jesus would and and in fact does. Stephen was and is truly one of Jesus’ “little ones.” Pray for Stephen this week!

In a town where I once served as pastor, a local restaurant operator won the lottery – a multi-million dollar reward. After deciding that he would retire and travel, he handed over his restaurant to his long time employees. Now, he handed over to them the business that he had run for more than 30 years not because he needed the money from the business (he was now a millionaire), but because he wanted to share his abundance with those whom he loved so much. Friends, the abundant blessings of God’s mercy and love in Christ are like the biggest lottery jackpot in the universe and we simply cannot keep it to ourselves. We’ve got to spread the reward…we’ve got to share the wealth.

At the end of Jesus’ sermon, Matthew tells us that “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim the message in their cities” (Matt. 11: 1). Now I don’t know about you…but that sentence surprised me when I read it, because what I expected to read was "Then Jesus blessed them as he sent them out on their first missionary journey....." I assumed that it would be Jesus watching his disciples move out as he cheered them on; but Matthew says that after he was finished instructing, it was Jesus who was on the move again. And where are his disicples? They're watching him! Obviously, he isn’t sending them out alone, he is going with them…and in fact it is Jesus who is leading the way. He's out there in front again; which makes me want to raise a mighty missional shout and a hearty, (let's say it together) “Heah Jesus…wait for me!”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Missional Division

If Jesus hasn’t said anything that you disagree with, lately, you might need to revisit the gospels; because some of the things Jesus said were truly disturbing and unsettling. Jesus said some shocking things – even for Jesus! Take this statement from Matthew 10: 34-39:

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn " 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law - a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

“Wait a minute,” you say. “That can’t be right. The Jesus I know is all about love and forgiveness and peace. He loves family and wants them to be together, not divide them. There is no way that Jesus would say such stern and terrible words and mean them to be taken seriously. There must be some mistake!”

But Jesus did say these words, and we must seek to understand them on their own terms. Jesus says that he came to bring not peace, but a sword! He did not come to smooth things over and make everything nice; he came to disrupt and confront. He did not come to help us escape from this world; but to send us on a mission to this world. He did not come to buy us a lazy boy; but to enlist us in the battle; a battle in which faith and discipleship to him is the true victory.

The sword that Jesus brings is a sword of division (cf. Luke 12: 51). It slices through the lies, self-deceptions and false-loyalties that fester in every human heart. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-­edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus word divides truth from falsehood, the old life from the new, darkness from light; so it should come as no surprise that it can potentially separate us from other people, even our families. For “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (35-37). What does it mean to love Christ more than our family?

First, it means that we honor the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” That is, we refuse to make an idol of our “family.” Parents, in particular, can become so obsessed with their children’s success that they become an extension of their own egos…they teach their children to live for the best schools, or the best jobs, or the best income, or fame and popularity for their sakes -- not for God's sake. As we grow into adulthood, honoring the first commandment may mean that we seek the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ even before the counsel of family members.

Secondly, it means that we honor the 4th commandment. “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” When we make family activities and hobbies and sports more important than worship, we are allowing the world to shape our priorities. We need to recover the blessing of the Sabbath…of the priority of worship in the life of the family. Worship is not a suggestion for the follower of Christ and his/her family; worship is a commandment. Some may think they are building up their families when they neglect Sunday worship; but in reality they are hurting them…because it is God who binds families together.

Just in case you think Jesus has gone completely off his rocker, loving Christ more than family does not (I repeat, does not) give us license to break the 5th commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” Listen to Jesus’ words: we are to love him more than family; not instead of family. My primary and undivided loyalty to Christ does not permit me to dishonor my family or abuse them or ignore them. Rather, it mandates that I love them for the sake of Christ. In Matthew 15: 1-6, Jesus himself reminds us of the command to honor father and mother and to take care of our parents; and blasts those who neglect to do so for “religious” reasons. In 1 Timothy 5: 8, the Apostle Paul writes that “Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Nor can we use religious differences as an excuse to abandon our marriages! On the contrary, we are told that the unbelieving spouse can be “consecrated” or “made holy” through the believing spouse (Check out 1 Cor. 7: 12-14). You can and should be a missional presence in your own family. The decision to follow Christ not only separates us from the unbelief of our families, it separates us from indifference and hatred and impatience toward them too. Paul says that by our perseverance in faith, God may use us to consecrate our parents, our spouse, or our family members!

Jesus’ last words in this paragraph are important because they give us hope: Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me….and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (38-39). Jesus calls us to pick up our cross (including the rejection of family); but not without the promise that what is lost will be found. When Jesus says “Take up the cross!” it means the denial of sin and self-centeredness and publicly following him, whatever the cost. Bearing a cross was a public act. Thus, following Jesus can’t be just an inward reality; it must also be an outward reality…and that usually means some kind of sacrifice. This goes not just for individual disciples, but the entire church. For far too long, the church has tried to shape society through worldly power and influence, when Jesus’ model is the way of the cross. We will be most effective in shaping our families and our entire culture when we walk in His way, the way of the cross, of suffering love, the way of self-sacrifice, the way of the servant who leads by humble example rather than through coercion and intimidation.

I’m so glad that after Jesus says, “Take up the cross,” he goes on to say “Follow me!” Why? Because it is the power of Jesus’ royal command to “Follow me!” that enables us to deny self and bear the wonderful cost. At times, following Jesus may look like suicide to our work associates, our classmates, or even our own families; but it’s actually the road to a life that makes sense. I don’t know anyone who understands this better than my wife Lisa whose father Wally rejected her as his daughter when she chose to study at a Christian school of psychology. It didn’t help when she decided to marry a pastor! The rejection she endured was nearly unbearable. It was Christ who gave not only her, but her mother and brother as well, the courage to persevere in loving him and reaching out to him.

Jesus’ final words in this passage give me reason to hope. “Those who try to find (or protect) their life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Whatever we lose (or give up) for Christ’s sake…we have the hope of finding again, says Jesus. Martin Luther said: “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess" -- and that includes our families. When Lisa’s father died, we found a locked file drawer filled with letters and cards that she and her brother had written to him about their faith in Christ. He saved them all, and the file drawer was labeled, “Oh God!” This made sense, because he once admitted to me that he had “hope” that there was a God and that his life was not just an accident. A friend at our church also had a vision, the night before his death, of Jesus meeting Wally on a hillside with love and welcome. Wally was dressed in kaki pants and a work shirt. Imagine her surprise when she learned from Lisa that it was on a grassy hillside that he died as he was doing yardwork – and wearing his trademark kaki pants and workshirt!

On an even more personal note, my own mother was the first member of her family to follow Jesus. She was invited to church by a friend to Sunday School at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. May God bless the faithfulness of that little girl; because through my mom, not only her mother, but years later her sisters and last of all her stubborn father at the age of 94 (who had been so abusive in his early years) all came to trust in the saving grace and truth of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that God can truly consecrate an entire family through one faithful man or woman, boy or girl. I believe it…because I’ve seen it happen in my own family! Whatever we may lose for the sake of Christ and his mission, we have the hope of finding again in him and because of him.

There are many things that threaten families today: divorce, illness, issues related to sexual identity, cultural differences, financial problems, or unbelief….but as followers of Jesus if it is our faith in Him that threatens to divide us from our families we should not fear; because it is Christ who raises the dead and has the power to heal broken families. It is Christ who came to bring not only division, but resurrection.



Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Facing Missional Fear

This past week, an extraordinary national election unfolded before our eyes. Regardless of how you voted, we should wonder at the fact that the first African American presidential candidate in history was elected in a nation that once defended the evil of slavery. We should also pray about the extreme challenges that President-Elect Obama will face. The inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes to mind, spoken on March 4, 1933, as he was preparing the country to face the crisis of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In Matthew 10: 24-33, we are listening in on Jesus’ missional inauguration address. Standing before him are not huge crowds of enthusiastic supporters, but a motley crew of 12 disciples who we know now will lead a movement that touches not a single nation but the entire world, from its greatest leaders to its most humble citizens…and not for 4 years or 8 years…but for 20 centuries and counting. Jesus warns that fear itself will be one of their greatest obstacles, and one of their greatest allies; for they can face their fears with a holy fear of God; and the promise of his love.

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master….” Jesus says; "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household." As I read these verses, I become acutely aware that persecution is a possibility, but it’s also a privilege (vv. 24-27). Jesus challenges you and me to count the cost of following him; to realize that there will be times when naming the name of Jesus will get us into serious trouble. But this “persecution” for the sake of Christ is also a privilege, for it marks us out as members of his household, members of his family.

I’ve been reading reviews on the film Religulous, a film that's billed as the "No. 1 sacrilegious comedy in America." It's supposedly a documentary, in which comedian Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect) travels the world asking religious practitioners questions about their faith. Though Maher makes fun of every world religion, about two-thirds of the film focuses on Christianity. At the beginning of the film, Maher says he's on a spiritual journey. But instead of interviewing pastors or Christian scholars, Maher poses complicated theological and philosophical questions to truck drivers, a Christian bookstore owner, and an actor who plays Jesus at an Orlando Christian theme park. LA Times movie critic Kenneth Turan said Maher's "reliance on skewering people who are no match for him in glibness, persuasiveness, or even intelligence finally leaves a sour taste”; and Time magazine says, "Maher seems interested less in conversation than in confrontation, so his movie is less essay than inquisition."

I'm glad that Jesus did not call us to be religulous…that is, ridiculously religious. He did, however, call us to be his disciples. “It is enough,” says Jesus “for the disciple to be like the teacher.” I want to be more than a religious convert; I want to be a disciple and apprentice, one who is learning to live my life as Jesus would live it if he were me. It’s a privilege to be a disciple; to be called to imitate the life of Jesus…and walk in his ways, to speak his words and do deeds of sacrificial love as he did; and as we do – despite persecution or mocking or skepticism -- the power (not the ridiculousness) of our faith will be evident.

The second thing I learn from these verses is that those who fear the Father, need not fear anything else (vv. 28-31), for Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” When I think of the appropriate fear of God; I think of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is a magnificent act of God – with a 6000 foot drop in some areas. Many people are drawn to its incredible beauty; but it is also quite dangerous. Every year an average of 4-5 people are killed while visiting the park. Why? As one website states, it’s often due to “overly zealous photographic endeavors.” I think that disregarding the fear of God is something like that.

Let's admit it: we want a safe God; a cosmic homeboy, a Best Friend Forever; but our Lord is so much more than this. Sure, Jesus is the Lamb of God; but he’s also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Thus he says, “Do not fear those who kill the body; but fear the one who holds the power of eternal life & death in his hands" (28). Augustine summed up this passage in a 4th century sermon: “Let us fear therefore, that we may not fear.” Our problem is not fear itself, but misplaced fear. If we don’t fear God we fear people and what they can do to us. We fear disease, we fear rejection, we fear being laughed at, we fear suffering, we fear a bad economy; but Jesus says that if we have a fear of God …nothing else need terrify us in this world.

My daughters still ask me to go with them into the dark hallways to the bathroom because of their fear of the dark. Why? Because they are more in awe of me …than the darkness. They trust that they can go anywhere in the house without fear because their dad is with them! Friends, we can go anywhere in this world -- or out of this world -- without fear, because the Father is with us.

And so, Jesus ushers us into the presence of the Father with a holy fear, but also with the assurance of his infinite love. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father….so do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows” (29-31). We assume that God is present at great historic moments, like Tuesday night’s election, but we see the true majesty of God in that he is concerned not only about these things… but about ordinary things like the fact that “two sparrows are sold for a penny” (yes, he knows what things cost these days!); or the insignificant things that barely concern us; like a sparrow’s fall to the ground, which Jesus says does not happen “apart from your Father.” Neither the fall of empires nor the fall of sparrows occur apart from his presence (He cares deeply about both, and so should we)! And if God so cares for the least of these …we can be sure he cares for us. Indeed, says Jesus, “we are of more value than many sparrows.” We are made in his image; we have the capacity to carry on his creative work in our world; or to destroy it. He has the hairs of our heads and every cell in our body numbered. We are important to him, and he wants us to value him, honor him, fear him, and love him in return.

Finally, Jesus says, "Whoever acknowledges me before others I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven" (32-22). That is, "Stand up for me; and I will stand up for you!" Many of us are truly afraid of bringing Jesus up in the public sphere. But if we live in a pluralistic culture now, in which no single worldview or philosophy can claim superiority; it is also true that in such a culture we have the freedom to speak openly and reasonably with others about our deepest convictions…while giving others the same freedom. Two years ago, Barack Obama wrote these words in“The Role of Religion and Politics” which I think are very relevant today….

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

It’s not only OK to stand up; it is urgent that we stand up. Jesus warns us plainly: the one who denies me I will deny, but the one who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my Father. That’s a sobering remark, for we have all denied our Lord at some point through our words or our actions. It encourages me to remember what Jesus said to his disciples on the night of his arrest: “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Matt. 26: 31); and then he predicted that Peter, his star pupil, would deny him not once but three times. They would all fail him; they would all falter and stutter and stammer when they were asked, “Who is your Lord who do you serve?” But that warning is not without a word of hope: “After I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee,” Jesus promised them. Their denial would not be final. They would fall, but by his grace and power they would have an opportunity to stand up again for him; and by his grace and power they did…and so can we.

It's time again to stand up and face our missional fears big and small with the liberating fear of God; honoring him above all other priorities and concerns. It's time again to entrust ourselves again to our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ as his disciples and servants – body and soul; for the sake of his mission to our wounded world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mission on the Margins

In the sci-fi action comedy 80’s film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox plays the part of Marty McFly who unwittingly goes back in time with Doc Brown’s time travel technology and accidentally stops his parents from meeting – thus putting his own existence in jeopardy. The fun of the movie is discovering how Marty will save his own future by returning to the past and ensuring that his parents fall in love. What parallel could there possibly be between this movie, and the situation of today’s church? Simply this: We are finding that we must return to the past, if we are to understand how the church is to thrive in the new millennium.

Jesus’ sobering words to his disciples in Matthew 10: 16-23 reflect the realities of preaching the gospel in a pluralistic society, where instead of one dominant world view, there was a marketplace of ideas, philosophies, and religions. His words reflect the attitude of One who knows that his message does not have a favored place; the attitude of One who knows that he must function on the margins, not in the mainstream of the society in which he lives.

These words are difficult for us to read, and to absorb, because we as Christians have had the home field advantage in Western Society for nearly 1700 years. But those days are no more. The past has become the future. The 21st century church is looking more and more like the 1st century church every day; a church that exists in a pluralistic culture in which no single philosophy or worldview enjoys a favored place. We’re on the margins again; but the good news is, there are great opportunities on the margins; and indeed, it’s on the margins where the missional church does best.

The 1st century was a hazardous place for Christians. When Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” he was not having a “bad day” he was being realistic. I think it was my entrance into college at UC San Diego when I truly felt at times like a sheep in the midst of wolves. There were those who wanted to convince me that as a Christian I was a dinosaur… that my convictions were going the way of all superstitions and religious myths. I was also distinctly aware of the fact that I was being challenged as never before to set aside my moral convictions. If I was to persevere in my Christian faith, I was going to need to be prepared in several ways that Jesus alludes to in this passage….

Jesus says, "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (16). As a follower of Jesus in a pluralistic world, I know this means that I need to be wiser and smarter than ever; to understand what I believe and why. C. S. Lewis once said that “Faith is something your reason has accepted despite your changing moods.” Reason is not opposed to faith; it is a necessary component of faith. But knowledge is not enough. What we know must translate into action. Therefore, Jesus says, I need to be innocent (akerairoi: pure, unmixed) as a dove. That is, I will resolve to live a life that reflects Jesus’ holiness and purity; a Christ-honoring life, which includes a total dependency upon his grace when I fail.

Second, Jesus says, “Beware of people” (17). The one who taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us was not naïve. He did not have an idealized or sentimental view of human nature. He obviously did not teach that all people are basically wonderful and trustworthy and have our best interests in mind. We only need take a brief but honest inside look to know that people are not God; and that the best and brightest among us are still fallible. Both candidates for the presidency have made reference to their capacity for failure and their need of God's help. That has encouraged me. Let us join together in prayer for President-elect Obama following his historic victory and all our newly elected leaders who will continue to need the strength and wisdom which only God can provide.

Third, Jesus tells us to "speak up!" for “It is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (19-20). One of the biggest challenges we face as Christians is speaking up; it’s putting in a good word for Jesus when everything and everyone seems to be against us. This is as true today as it ever was in the first century. We desperately need to add to wisdom, and purity, and an awareness of human nature, the power of the Spirit who alone can give us strength to say and do what needs to be done.

Fourth, Jesus urges us to be steadfast, for “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (22). Endurance is badly needed today as we live for Christ in the current political climate. In the past few years, the words of Jesus about enemy love and his golden rule (Matthew 5: 38-44; 7:12) have impressed upon me that war must be the absolute last option rather than the first option; and to promote the peace and love of Christ wherever and whenever possible. Jesus' words and example also call me to love those who resist the boundaries of traditional marriage, while lifting up the lifelong marriage of one man and one woman as a God-given institution that uniquely blesses society and its children (Genesis 2: 23-24; Matt. 19: 3-6). I share these examples because they have challenged me to wrestle with God’s word and the culture around me even at the risk of being out of step with that culture.

Finally, Jesus reminds his church "on the margins" to "be hopeful as you await the coming of the Son" (23). As I live in a culture that does not always support the values and truths which have transformed my life, Jesus calls me to live nevertheless with a constant sense of hope. Why? Because Jesus is coming back; and indeed he has already come in the power of the Holy Spirit to dwell within his people. When we live in the hope of Jesus’ return we are saying that he has the Last Word, no matter what we may be facing. We don’t walk around moping and sad…but ultimately hopeful.

From the earliest days of Christianity, Jesus’ followers adopted purple (the color of Roman imperial power) as the color of Christ’s kingly rule. It was a very intentional way of declaring, from the margins, that their allegiance was to the King of kings, above all emperors, kings, princes, parties, and powers. Today, the past has once again become the future. As we engage in Christ’s mission on the margins, I believe Christ is challenging us to forsake the notion that we are red Christians or blue Christians and adopt the purple robes of faith. More than a wishy washy hybrid of red and blue, purple is the color of repentance and humility, the color of the crucified and risen savior, whose kingdom is advanced not by earthly power or politics, but by the power of the Holy Spirit through a community of prayerful love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Missional Investigations

Last week, I was helping my daughter understand how scientific experiments work. She was learning the difference between independent variables, dependent variables, and controlled variables in a scientific experiment. I admit that I had to relearn what I had long forgotten in order to help her with her 5th grade homework! What I do remember is that the main goal of any scientific experiment is to discover the truth, or what can be known, about the relations between members in the natural world. In that sense Science and Christianity, according to noted theoretical physicist and theologian John Pokinghorne, play different but complimentary roles. While science seeks to understand the relations between different members of the universe; faith seeks to understand why and for what purpose we or any other member of the universe exists at all. World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking admits that, “Science may solve the problem of how the universe began, but it cannot answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist?”

The why's pile up quickly. Why, for instance, do human beings have an insatiable desire to live life with meaning? Why do human beings have a universal hunger to know God, or in some way to understand their existence? What is the purpose, if any, of suffering and why do we long to understand it? Why is it that nothing within this universe is able to satisfy our deepest desires and longings?

Jesus answers that question in a round about way when he tells his disciples to go out on their first missionary journey with the attitude of scientific investigators. I say this because Jesus asks them to Find out who is worthy (Matthew 10:11). To “find out” translates the Greek verb exetazo -- a very “scientific” word that means “to test thoroughly by questioning, enquiry, or searching.” The goal of this scientific inquiry, says Jesus, is to find out who is “receptive” (which is what is meant by “worthy” here) to the good news of the kingdom of God.

Here is where science and faith come in. On the one hand, finding out who is “receptive” is something that can be discerned through rational inquiry. Scientific inquiry, careful questioning, can tell us who is receptive and who is not – and Jesus explicitly tells us not to push ourselves on the unreceptive (see Matthew 10: 11-15). On the other hand, what we cannot learn through rational investigation is why a person is ultimately receptive at all. Why is it that a certain human being has this “God-hunger” inside them? Parental conditioning or exposure to religious teaching is not an adequate explanation. There have been many examples of former skeptics and even atheists, coming to a vital and living faith in God. Francis Collins, a former atheist, and Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute writes:

"I had always assumed that faith was based on purely emotional and irrational arguments, and was astounded to discover, initially in the writings of the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis and subsequently from many other sources, that one could build a very strong case for the plausibility of the existence of God on purely rational grounds…But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind. You have to hear the music, not just read the notes on the page. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.
For me, that leap came in my 27th year, after a search [a.k.a. “hunger”] to learn more about God's character led me to the person of Jesus Christ. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus."
For the complete CNN Interview, click on the link below: http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/03/collins.commentary/index.html

If Francis Collins did not come to God because of parental conditioning or other external factors, what can explain his receptivity? Jesus says that “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him” (John 6:44). That is, our openness to God is truly a supernatural event…it comes from beyond the natural world; and cannot be adequately explained by anything within it. Our receptivity to God can be discovered through investigation, but the reason for that receptivity is, I would maintain, a flat-out miracle (In addition to Scripture, I would recommend for further reading, Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World; and John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in the Age of Science).

These are some of my thoughts; but what about yours? What do you think causes people to be “receptive” to Christ, or even to enter conversations about meaning, the purpose of life, forgiveness, the burden of guilt, the meaning of suffering or death?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Missional Abuse

Spiritual power is real…and where there is spiritual power there is also the temptation to abuse it. Jesus warns us not to use the spiritual power and influence that we have for selfish and self-centered ends.

In Matthew 10:8b, Jesus prepares his disciples for their first missional adventure with these words: “You received without payment; give without payment.” Why is it so important that we offer the gospel free of charge, and without manipulation or intimidation? First, the character of God requires it. Extending the love of Christ without charge or ulterior motives bears witness to the truth of God’s grace, generosity, and self-giving love. As we have freely received salvation and power for living through Jesus’ life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, so we must freely share it. But secondly, it is because the vulnerability of people demands it. It is a fact that spiritual benefits and blessings awaken deep gratitude, and that those who receive such blessings are vulnerable to manipulation.

I’ll never forget watching a TV evangelist hock a holy handkerchief that was said to have special healing powers. This special prayer handkerchief which the pastor had prayed over could be mine with a love gift of $20. I declined. Another church sent me a mailing offering a chance to have my name inscribed on a 200 foot prayer tower, for a $1000 donation. I declined again. Finally, I read in Time magazine about a popular American preacher who received annual gifts from listeners nearing $51 million & kept half as personal income. He owned a luxury home & a fleet of cars. OK, I was a little jealous! It’s unfortunate that these are actually some of the most benign examples of the abuse and misuse of spiritual authority.

Let’s be honest here. The history of the Christian Church includes some very dark moments when manipulation and intimidation were the preferred tools of a supposed spiritual conquest. Friends, we know that this does not reflect the teaching or example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down his life and was crucified for us. Paul was very aware that it was not through power, but weakness, that Christ was most visible in him: “For I came to you in weakness and in fear and much trembling....that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2: 3-4).

One of the newest ministries at St. John’s is an outreach to international students who live in an around the UCLA Village area. It is our desire to extend to these new friends the love of Christ without coercion, intimidation, or manipulation. We have received the love of Christ as a free gift…and we want to offer it in the same way…without any strings attached. I’m very impressed with the “code of ethics” under which we are operating. They are valuable and instructive for anyone hoping to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others:

1. We will respect the dignity of international students and will seek to understand their ideology without denigrating either the person or his/her views. We will affirm their freedom of choice in making intelligent judgments concerning various philosophical and religious beliefs and practices.
2. We will maintain honesty, openness and sensitivity in the publicity of any activity and approaches to international students; and will oppose the use of manipulation, harassment, pressure, restraint, dominance by nullifying the individual’s will, compulsion to listen or act by force or threat, or offering special inducements to listen or act by force or threat, or offering special inducements to affect a change in philosophical or religious beliefs and practices.
3. We will treat international students with dignity and respect, not as museum pieces or objects to be converted.
4. We will focus first on the physical and emotional needs of students. When inviting international students to any kind of Christian meeting or activity, we will be sure the invitation includes a clear explanation of the nature and purpose of the activity, without surprise or manipulation.
5. We will not pressure international students about becoming Christians.
6. We will recognize there is no substitute for tangible expressions of love and caring concern.
7. We will tread sensitively on issues where political or religious differences exist. We realize that being critical of another’s ideologies, either explicitly or implicitly, is not conducive to good relationships or to a loving witness.

I believe this “code” would be helpful in a variety of situations – but especially when we're in relationship with those who come from other cultures or religious backgrounds. As we share Christ “freely” and “simply” – God is able to reveal his grace and truth through us. In that spirit, this is my prayer:

“Father, we thank you for the gift of gracious pardon which we have received through faith -- a free gift but not a cheap one, for your Son paid the just penalty for our sin when he died for us on the cross! We cannot repay you for this gift; we can only receive it; and share it freely and generously. We therefore renounce any effort to intimidate or manipulate others with the gospel, or to touch others spiritually that we might profit selfishly. May we go out into this city in your name as though walking into a sanctuary; with a sense of humility and dependence upon you, the holiness of our task, and the dignity of each person we meet.”

Can you think of a time when you felt abused, manipulated or taken advantage of by a religious group, or a time when you felt protected and/or delivered from such abuse? What happened and what did you learn? Here’s another question: Jesus says, “You received without payment; give without payment.” What are some creative ways that we can offer Jesus Christ and his love to others “with no strings attached”? Friends, let's chuck the holy handkerchiefs, and start sharing the gospel (with integrity and sacrificial love.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Missional News Break

Have you noticed that news travels fast these days…especially bad news. TV stations and internet news sites seem to thrive on telling us bad news. Evidently it boosts ratings and readership. Go figure. Sometimes, I wish I could be more like my cat, Sugar, because while I’m watching the news she just stretches out on the couch, eyes half shut, trusting completely in the care of her owners. But I’m not a cat…and bad news does irritate me and like you, I hunger for relief from the steady drone of negativity. That’s why I’m so grateful for God's Son and the extraordinary news he brings us.

Before sending them on their first missional adventure, Jesus said to his disciples: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has drawn near’” (Matthew 10: 7-8). It should come as no surprise that we are not the first generation to hear bad news. Take 1st century Israel, for example. Here was a nation under the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Her people were scattered and beaten down. Her religious leadership was divided; and her political leaders corrupt. It’s not surprising that many people felt they were under God’s judgment, nor that people hungered for good news (Isaiah 52: 7). It was in those days that news of a teacher from Nazareth began to spread, a man of grace and truth, a man who spoke with God’s authority, who had compassion for the down and outs, who healed the sick, and said that God’s kingdom reign was drawing near in his own life and ministry.

The kingdom message and ministry of Jesus was and is in direct conflict with the drone of bad news that so characterizes our world; for he comes to cast out the kingdoms of darkness that operate here. Yet, as his disciples, we must be careful that in confronting the fearful, evil -- and just plain "bad"-- stuff going on in this world that we do not add to it. Here is Jesus' counsel:

First, he warns that we must address the evil that has taken root in our own hearts. Jesus says we must first remove the log from our own eye before attempting to help someone else get the speck out of theirs (Matthew 7: 3-5)! It’s so easy for us to talk about the evil that is out there…and forget the badness in our own souls. “Gradually it was disclosed to me”, said Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “that the line dividing good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” The Apostle Paul reminds us: “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Secondly, Jesus showed by his example that we must confront evil with the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus went into the wilderness just prior to his public ministry, the Bible says that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1). As we surrender to the power of the Spirit of God we are enabled to confront the lesser powers of the evil one. Our Father in heaven is eager to give the gift of his Spirit to all who simply ask him (Luke 11:13).

Thirdly, we must confront evil with the goodness of God’s word. It was torah, God's word, that gave Jesus power to confront the evil one in the desert place. For Jesus reminds us that “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4: 4; Exodus 23:25). The Psalmist declares, “I treasure your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119: 11). To the extent that we walk according to God’s word and trust in his promises – our power over evil will grow. Finally, evil cannot bear the worship and praise of the Living God. When Jesus said to Satan, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only!”(Matthew 4:10) the devil left him. When we glorify the Lord with with our lips and our love for others, the evil one must flee and the power of temptation loosens its grip on us.

The good news which Jesus’ proclaimed in the face of this world’s dark powers was more than words. After telling his disciples to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven, he entrusts them with his own ministry: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” he says. As a young pastor I saw a boy in my home church pronounced “brain dead” make a complete recovery. It was the same day that I read these words from John 11: 25 in a devotional bible: “I am the resurrection and the life; and those who believe in me, even if they die, shall live.” Three weeks ago, I witnessed an act of sacrificial love as a woman in our church, moved by a prayer for one of our church members, donated one of her kidneys, and in so doing gave the gift of hope and healing to a man and his family. Nearly four years ago, a group of students from St. John’s traveled to Cameroon, and met countless children orphaned by AIDS and stricken with epilepsy. Today, an orphan support program has been birthed here in this congregation, giving hope to hundreds of children in that small African village. And just last week a woman named Mirja in our church who loves animals and works at the Westside Animal Shelter worked tirelessly to reverse a policy change that would have enabled animals to be destroyed more easily. Healing, compassion, service, and lovingkindness: that's kingdom work.

Friends, my prayer for you and for me is that we would know that the good news of the kingdom is not just nice or interesting news but that it is powerfully relevant. May we speak the news that is truly good and may we demonstrate its power: Where there is sadness may we sow joy; where there is hatred and prejudice, may we sow love; where there is sickness, healing; where there is evil, goodness; where there is fear, faith; where there is death, life. May the One who is the Light of the World not only empower us to preach good news, but make some good news; and be the subject of the next breaking story of God’s expanding kingdom in a city that is thirsty and longing for more of his peace, light, and love.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Missional Destinations

When Jesus sent out his disciples on their first missional adventure, he gave them precise directions. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10: 5-6). Why did Jesus purposely tell his disciples not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans? As a Gentile myself, it seems at first glance as though Jesus had planned an important trip, and then crossed off some of the best stops along the way!

In fact, what we learn from Jesus here is that mission begins at home. Jesus begins his first mission in his own backyard – with “the house of Israel.” Many students of the Bible have observed that – in calling together twelve disciples – Jesus was showing his intention to bring healing and restoration to the scattered and disassembled family of Israel (see Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 454). From the Book of Genesis, we know that Isaac’s son Jacob had twelve sons, and that those twelve sons became the forefathers of the twelve Israelite tribes; but that following the Assyrian invasion of 721 BC -- ten of those tribes were lost. At the time of Jesus’ ministry only two tribes remained – two brothers out of twelve. It is not surprising then, that Jesus would send his disciples to the Jews first – to his own scattered and broken family to whom God has promised the Messiah and Deliverer. Later, the apostle Paul would describe the gospel as the power of God for salvation “to the Jew first and then the Gentile” (Romans 1: 16).

Anyone familiar with Matthew’s Gospel, knows that Jesus’ exclusion of the Gentiles was a only temporary one. For the gospel ends with Jesus’ Great Commission in which the Risen Christ says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 18-20); and again in Acts 1: 8 where Jesus reminds his disciples that “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Mission begins at home…but it doesn’t end there. God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah was not only that he would bless them and bring forth from them a great nation, but that through them all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12: 1). The prophet Isaiah states repeatedly– that God’s future kingdom would encompass both Jew and Gentile. For “in the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall stream to it (Isaiah 1: 2); and “on that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage’ (Isaiah 10: 24-25); and again, “Thus says the LORD God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Isaiah 56: 8), to which I say as a Gentile who has been saved by grace and grafted in to the vine through faith in God’s Messiah -- “Whew!”

In short, there is no one – Jew or Gentile -- whom Yeshua (Jesus) a Jew did not invite into the circle of his devoted followers. There is no nation that was not on his map of missional destinations. Jesus knew that his mission to the “the house of Israel” was not the last stop on his missional map, it was the first – and a very important one. Yet, the same cannot always be said of his followers. At times, we have knowingly crossed off some important stops on our missional map. We have excluded people in our own backyard from the good news of God’s grace, truth and love, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps there is a neighbor on your street, someone at school or work, who you would rather not associate with; a difficult person that you would just as soon ignore or exclude from your circle of relationships. "Life would be so much easier if I didn't have to deal with that guy," we say to ourselves. I recall someone in a circle of aquaintances years ago who decided to tell us one day about his double life; revealing that he was cruising the city at night looking to "hook up," endangering his health and his relationships. At one point he asked us for help when he needed to undo some of the damage he had done. I honestly didn't want to get involved -- it would have been easier not to -- but God gave me compassion for him. The one I could have easily excluded, Jesus was telling me to include because the Lord loved him and wanted him to be whole.

Jesus began by calling the sick and broken from among his own family…but he didn’t end there and neither should we. When Jesus spent time with “tax gatherers and sinners” the religious professionals criticized him (Matthew 9:11) – but Jesus responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick….for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). If Jesus were to exclude from his company the “sinners and tax gatherers” who would be left? When we consider our missional destinations, we’re reminded that there is no one who is too smelly, too soiled, or too sick for Jesus – not even me.

With that in mind, who are we tempted to cross off our missional map, to exclude or ignore in our backyard from the grace, truth, and love of Jesus? As you consider your response to that question, here is another: What would your prayer be for them today?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Missional Community

Last Saturday night, I was having some serious fun – and I wasn’t with my church family. That’s not meant to be a criticism of St. John’s – just an expression of “wonder” that I could carve out some time to be with people who are not part of my church, and enjoy it. If you must know, my two daughters dance in a local hula dance troop, and I was koholo-ing with my oldest in a father-daughter number along with several other dads. The song was “Pineapple Princess” and let’s just say that only a dad and his daughter could do it justice with words like “Pineapple Princess, I love you you’re the sweetest girl I’ve seen / Someday we’re gonna marry and you’ll be my Pineapple Queen!” Practicing that song with Corynn has been a terrific bonding time; and an unintended benefit has been the opportunity to get to know some men who are not part of my “church circle.”

Perhaps you’re getting the idea that one of my biggest challenges is building relationships with those who are not members of my congregation. Admittedly -- so much of my time is spent studying and preparing for worship services, attending the steady stream of administrative and leadership meetings, engaging in pastoral care, and simply enjoying the rich friendships we’ve made with our St. John’s family -- it would be quite easy for me to go weeks without meaningful contact with the people in our larger community. That’s a problem…because I firmly believe Christ calls us to be invested in relationships with those who don’t know him and have no experience of his transforming grace.

No doubt Jesus’ original disciples experienced a similar tension. Theirs was a close-knit fellowship of men, and not a few women, who experienced a richness of life together. “Jesus called those whom he desired, to be with him (Mark 3:13-15) in a deep and abiding friendship. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” Jesus said. “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends” (John 15: 15). He made it clear that his followers were his true family (Matthew 12: 46-50); and in calling together 12 men – mirroring the 12 sons of Jacob and the 12 tribes -- he was making clear his intention to reform the broken and scattered family of Israel. No, Jesus did not form a corporation or a political action committee or even a religious institution -- he formed a family.

That being said, I want to suggest that the very things we cherish about our own church family (the closeness, the honesty and forgiveness, our inter-generational and multi-ethnic variety) could actually be a hindrance to the mission of Christ….if we hold them too tightly. Perhaps you’ve caught yourself or heard someone else say, “You know, I just love this church because people know my name and I know theirs. If the church grew any larger…I’m afraid we would lose the closeness that we cherish.” I too can say that “I love this community, and those ten or one hundred people who know my name” -- but I have to be careful not to make that “community” into an idol. For Jesus called the twelve “to be with him,” and then sent them out. He called us to be a missional community… a community with a cause. The “us four and no more” attitude is what flash freezes our hearts, closes off the outside world, and remakes the church into a private club that is ours to enjoy at the expense of the seeking, lonely, and hurting people outside who need the love of God as much as we do.

Lately, I’m finding that to push myself beyond the walls of the church is not as difficult as it first would seem. Christ calls me to begin by being aware of where I already naturally connect with people in my everyday life – whether talking with a new friend at the local gym where I work out, extending myself in hospitality to one of my neighbors, having dinner with some international students from UCLA Village who want to practice English, or dancing “Pineapple Princess” with a bunch of crazy dads in my daughters’ hula dance troop. I'm thinking about a friend right now who loves to play the "cruise director" and invite friends over for a fun time of board games. What a great answer to the lonelines and isolation of a big city like Los Angeles, and what an opportunity for deep and meaningful friendship -- Jesus' style.

Building authentic friendships with those who are outside the church community…and including them intentionally in my own circle of relationships is where I need to begin. God will give you and me the words to speak as we live out a Christ-honoring life before others, for his desire is to welcome these new friends (like you and me) into his forever family. Now here are two questions for you: (1) In thinking through the idea of missional community, what would it mean for you to personally bring together believers and seekers in a circle of friendship, and so lay the foundation for the sharing of love, real life and faith in Christ? Or, (2) name 3 ways that your Lifegroup could become a 'community with a cause'?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Missional Authority

“Don’t trust anyone over thirty” was a maxim of the 1960’s, but the phrase didn’t originate with the Boomers. The rejection of tradition and its authority is a movement that began with the Enlightenment in the 18th century. In the words of Leslie Newbigin, it was “a summons to have the courage to think for oneself, to test everything in the light of reason and conscience, to dare to question even the most hallowed traditions” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 39).

Today, we continue to challenge the legitimacy of authority. The legitimate authority of government leaders is questioned every four years (if they’re lucky). The authority of the medical profession is no longer established by a nicely framed diploma on the wall (We may seek second opinions, consult cyber doctors, alternative medicines and homeopathics – wisely or not). The legitimacy of the clergy is also questioned today with the knowledge that, yes, they too are quite capable of hypocrisy and deceit (ouch)!

Let me say that I don’t believe questioning the legitimacy of authority is a bad thing. We know from experience that authority is often abused, leading us to question rather than to simply accept everything that is told us. In fact, the Bereans of Acts 17: 11 were said to be “more noble” because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Nor did our Lord hesitate to question the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites on more than one occasion. Jesus understood and modeled the importance of legitimate authority. Matthew 7:39 states that “The crowds were astounded at [Jesus’] teaching for he taught as one having authority and not as the scribes.” We get the sense that Jesus stood out from the other religious leaders because he spoke of what he knew; lived what he commanded, and proved by his actions what he claimed.

The power of Jesus’ healing words was matched by his deeds; but what many of his followers don't realize is that he gives that same authority to them. For Matthew tells us that “Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 10: 1). The gift of Jesus to his disciples, is the gift of legitimate authority; not the authority to misrepresent him…but to share his words and do his works with authenticity. In the words of the Apostle Paul, it means “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 1-3.).

Last week I was at the UCLA Medical Center to witness a miracle. It was the day that John – who has a genetically inherited disease affecting his kidneys – was to receive a new kidney from Tiffany, both of whom are members of our church. It was an incredible privilege, as a pastor, to simply be there for this God-orchestrated event. I was awed by this act of love and courage and sacrifice. May I say that both John and Tiffany represented Jesus very well that day! Now, as a pastor – you’ll have to forgive me – but I often observe things that seem to me worthy of illustrating a spiritual point and I want to share just one….

I’m not speaking of Tiffany’s courage and sacrifice or John’s deep faith and gratitude to God for the gift he received. These were truly awesome to behold – I’m speaking of something more mundane – hospital uniforms. Every staff person wears a uniform that has the name of the hospital embroidered above the pocket. From the maintenance crew to the nurses and surgeons, whether in the pre-op ward, the nurses’ desk or behind the cash register in the cafeteria, every staff member was identified by that uniform and -- in particular -- by the words “UCLA Medical Center.” And it's that name which symbolized both their authority and their responsibility to represent the hospital well. Before the surgery I met Tiffany’s anesthesiologist, a very capable and professional doctor who put Tiffany at ease. Hours later, who did I see eating a bowl of tortilla soup down in the cafeteria? It was Tiffany’s anesthesiologist again, on her break -- smiling and very cordial -- and still wearing her uniform. Why? It occured to me that whether she was in the surgery ward or down in the cafeteria she knew that she represented the good name of that hospital.

Here is a question to consider as a church, as lifegroups, or as individuals. When considering our community and its particular needs and challenges -- what is the unique gift, specific authority, or capacity which you believe Jesus has given us in response? Whether we are over 20, 30, 60 or 90, Jesus entrusts his disciples with the authority to represent him. May we represent him well -- engaging in the healing ministry of Jesus at home, in the surgery ward, the factory, in our neighborhood, or the classroom -- and so draw others to him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Missional Prayer

It was the one-time professional wrestler and Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura, who said, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people.” No doubt he has a very low view of one of the principle aspects of true religion – namely, prayer. I agree that prayer may be thought of as a crutch or “support” that enables one to do what would be difficult or impossible without it. Prayer is a powerful and effective support – just as an electric wheel chair increases the mobility of a disabled person; or eye glasses enable a brain surgeon to do his lifesaving work. Prayer is a powerful support because it puts us in touch with the One who is the power behind the powers.

We like to think of ourselves as a pragmatic society. We’re much too busy doing to bother with things like prayer. Jesus seems silly to us when he scans the crowds with compassion in his eyes and then turns to his disciples and says – of all things – “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9: 37-38). We wish that Jesus would have said, “The harvest is huge…so get out there and get to work.” Instead, he calls a prayer meeting. Is this another example of what skeptics say “weak minded” religious people do – namely, nothing?

Before going any further I want to say that Jesus’ call to prayer does not mean we should sit around and have a prayer meeting when someone is bleeding to death in front of us. Check Matthew 9: 35 and you’ll find that Jesus called his disciples to pray after he himself had been out in the field “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness.” In other words, Jesus was a first responder -- as surely as the LA City Fire and Police Dept. were first responders after the train wreck on Friday in Chatsworth, CA when a Metrolink train had a head on collision with a freight train and at least 25 people were killed…a terrible tragedy.

I would bet that no one knows the value of prayer better than many first responders. Their eyes are wide open. They see the tremendous need. They understand the limits of what they can do. I’m thinking about that moment when an officer was found dead and then gently carried out of the mangled wreck, through lines of police and firefighters with their hats and helmets over their hearts. They paused for a minute of silent prayer. It was a moment of reverence and humility…after everything they tried to do wasn’t enough, and they handed him over to Another.

Jesus asks us to pray not just because the need is great, but because his heavenly Father is greater. He asks us to pray not because he wants us to sit on our hands when trains collide, but because the labor that a compassionate God inspires is what this world truly needs. Listen to Jesus’ words again: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The phrase “to send out” is a translation of the Greek verb ekballō, and it means “to cast out or throw out.” It’s a request that God would catapult his workers out into the harvest field with Jesus’ message and ministry. The fact is, there are plenty of workers available in every church and community. What we need to pray for is that God will light a fire under us…and catapult us into a world of need; that he will empty our church pews…so that we might join the awesome work of harvesting the field of God.

I began by speaking of a deadly collision; let me end by telling you about a divine one. On September 17th Tiffany, a relatively new woman to our church, will be giving a gift to a man she hardly knows, a gift that is like no other. John has a genetically inherited disease that has left him with less than 8% of normal kidney function. Earlier this summer, John’s sister was ready to donate her kidney, but discovered that she had health problems of her own…and could not go forward with the procedure. Time was running out. John’s kidney function continued to deteriorate, and he would soon need to go on dialysis like his father did years before. Tiffany first heard about the crisis during a Sunday service in July; and though she has had challenges of her own, she felt the compassion of God move her to begin the screening process. She learned that she was not only the right blood type, but that she was a near perfect genetic match – it was a divine collision of one person’s need, and another another’s compassion. Last Sunday we thanked God for providing this gift of healing through Tiffany -- who not only prayed that God would raise up help for John…but was ready to be that help. Please keep them in your prayers this week.

“God of all compassion, Lord of the harvest, we ask that you would do more than open our eyes to see the sick and grieving, the lonely and the hungry, the harassed and helpless, the rebels who think that ‘religion is a crutch for weak-minded people,’ we pray that you would catapult more laborers into your harvest field – laborers that can bring the redemptive works and words of Jesus to this community – and we pray that we might be those workers today…for the good of this world and the glory of God.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Missional Heart

Whether or not you've ever darkened the door of a North American church the word mission, when used in a “religious” sense, evokes thoughts of missionaries traveling to distant lands and unfamiliar peoples. For many, the word mission is associated with the financial support of others who go to distant lands and unfamiliar peoples in the name of Christ. Don't get me wrong, I have a great love for those who engage in mission to far away places. Our particular church supports a variety of mission organizations whose primary focus of ministry is beyond North America. Recently, we've been able to send short-term mission teams to Cameroon, the Philippines, and the Middle East, for which we give thanks.

That being said, when we speak of being missional, we are talking about more than supporting God's work in distant lands. For while the word mission is a noun that we can support from afar or for a summer, the word missional is an adjective that describes our personal participation in God’s ongoing mission all around us. Mission comes from the latin word missio, meaning “sent.” The missional church is nothing more than individuals who realize they have been sent by God, and in particular to their own place and time.

I heard someone complain to his pastor, “I just don’t have time to be missional.” I have to agree. With the busyness of our 21st century lives there’s simply no time left to be missional -- unless of course we make the time. For we will make time for the things we care about, the things we are concerned about, the things we are moved about. Friends, to be missional we need a heart change. In Matthew 9: 36 we discover a primary reason why Jesus was missional. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus had a heart – a heart of compassion for people. The word “compassion” translates a Greek word (splachna) meaning “to be moved from the gut.” Jesus had a gut-level compassion for the sick, the grieving, the lonely, the hungry, the harassed, and for those who were running from God as fast as they could. The compassion of Jesus begins at the exit doors of the church – and in a time when cynicism comes easy, this same compassion is the gift that Jesus wants to give us.

As we seek to understand more deeply what it means to be God’s missional people, and to be sent by God to this city, I’m asking our Lifegroups to ponder and respond to this important question: What are some of the things that really move you with compassion in our immediate situation, place, and time? In particular, what are the things that move you with compassion and concern right here in West Los Angeles…or in your own particular corner of God’s world? Let’s talk about it together…and pray that God will develop within us, his missional heart.