Tuesday, October 28, 2008
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
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
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
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?