Thursday, April 29, 2010

Can We Grow Without Making Disciples?

Jesus is full of surprises: How can the ruler of the world become an example of obedience? How can the object of worship himself become an example of how to worship with heart, soul, mind and strength? How can the perfect Son of God call others to follow him, and then demonstrate the way to follow? It’s part of his genius, his glory, his nature. What’s more, he not only showed us how it’s done, he empowered us to do the same. Real discipling is about making a way for others to approach the Father. If we’re only talking about Jesus, most of us are comfortable with this paradox, but most amazingly--he calls us to do the same.

The gospel record demonstrates Jesus lived a life of obedience to the Father and called us into the same obedience. But Jesus did not leave us to struggle with obedience alone. Jesus, the Master Teacher, was also the Master Equipper:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16: 12 - 15)
As his followers, we are called to make disciples as well, teaching others to obey everything he commanded. There are two great problems as we attempt to live up to this commission today: First, many of us see discipleship only in terms of following Jesus, and almost never in terms of leading others. Second, if we try to lead others, we run the risk of demanding of other people obedience to Jesus without actually equipping them to obey him. Both these challenges are critical to our personal development as students of Jesus. Our personal spiritual growth depends on coming to terms with these challenges, and the destiny of others depends on our response as well.

Leading others: How many of us receive the call to discipleship as a personal call from God to become a leader? We may come to him because we need a Savior, but if we choose to become a follower of Jesus we must also realize we are also choosing the responsibility to lead others. This is what it means to follow him: we act on his behalf in the lives of others. It’s more than “sharing our faith.” It’s taking responsibility for other people’s lives until they are mature followers of Jesus. He showed us--in very practical ways--exactly how it works.

Equipping others: Jesus gave his disciples the tools necessary to live a healthy life with God. He did more than demand; he did more than point the way; he empowered his followers. He pointed to issues of the heart (as in Matthew 5); he included his students as partners in ministry, giving them hands-on experience (as in Matthew 10); and, as the passage from John 16 indicates, he introduced them to the Holy Spirit, effectively opening the resources of heaven to each of his disciples. What about us? As disciple makers, do we interact with those God has given us in the same way? Do we teach about heart-matters? Do we release our students into ministry? Do we introduce them to the Holy Spirit?

First things first: we cannot equip others until we believe we are called to lead others. It will not do to claim, “I have no one to lead.” Jesus is our model: he came in obedience to the Father and simultaneously became a leader of others. We must do the same, and God has provided venues for our leadership: in our homes, among our friends, at work or school, or in our community. We were called to change the world by allowing God to change us and by becoming God’s agents of change where he leads us.

Who knew discipleship would require everything we have? I suspect the Master did.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Guest Blogging at Deep Church

I know, “Deep Church” makes you think of fishing off a charter boat in the Caribbean, but the Deep Church Blogsite, originating in the U.K., is a wonderful place to join the discussion concerning the church in the 21st century.  The good folks at Deep Church invited me to share my opinions--always dangerous!--so you’re invited to read my views on equipping people to do the work of the ministry. While you’re there why not check out some other articles?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Capturing His Attention

I’ve been intrigued lately with those things that impressed Jesus. Some things captured his attention. I’m not smart enough to present a systematic theology of God’s heart, but I know that he has one. I’ve seen it in the scripture, and I've seen in in my life. Have you? He stops the course of time and history and bends low to the affairs of men.

This Monday let me present my simple list of what catches God’s attention. If you meditate on these few suggestions, I’ll bet you could add a few more:
  • The Father loves humility. It turns his head. But I’m quoting myself. You can read my view of a humble heart in last week’s post.
  • Jesus was impressed by faith. When he encountered genuine trust, he never failed to point out how rare it can be. He usually discovered faith in the socially unacceptable places of his day, like women and foreigners (Matthew 8:10 and 15: 28 are two examples).
  • Jesus stopped for the bold: A blind man screaming on the sidelines evoked this question from the Lord, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18: 35 - 43) Can you imagine Jesus interrupting his schedule to ask you--personally--”What do you want me to do for you?”
  • Jesus defended outrageous acts of worship: When Mary crashed a party to lavish attention on Jesus other people criticized her impropriety. But Jesus said “Leave her alone.” (John 12:7) Do I pour out my passion in a way that would bring Jesus to my defense?
Jesus loved these traits. He rewarded them. But there is one human trait that never seemed to impress the Lord: our intelligence. True, I want every part of my being to serve the King, but one thing is sure: God is never impressed by anyone’s intellect, but he is frequently impressed with people’s hearts.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Everone's Entitled to My Opinion . . . about Changing Lanes

Roger Michell’s 2002 movie, Changing Lanes, is about what it takes to change your life. Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a young lawyer eager to make his mark while working for his fiance’s father. Doyle Gipson (Samuel Jackson) is an divorced alcoholic father desperate to retain visiting rights with his children. Both men need to change, neither of them realize the depth of their need until they share a small automobile accident on the F.D.R. in New York City.

John Eldredge once observed that Hollywood dreams the dreams but the world still needs people like Joseph and Daniel to interpret the meanings. This film is filled with spiritual meanings. The characters have no use for each other, but God has a destiny in mind for each of them, and for them both together. The movie is set in the world of litigation and disagreement, and each man demonizes the other largely because of selfishness and lack of love for their neighbor.

No one would characterize Changing Lanes as a religious film: it does not preach: it portrays. The characters curse and rail against what they consider injustice and bad luck, but in their distress God is offering them repentance and new life--will they take it? In my opinion you should watch the film to find out.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Sex, Celebrity, & Discipleship

I’m wondering today if I became a dramatically better writer overnight. With last Thursday's post, When Famous Christians are Gay, traffic to Students of Jesus increased ten-fold, and comments tripled their usual rate.

Why did so many more people visit this particular blog post and recommend it to others? To be sure, there were some unusual elements: I’ve never written specifically about sexuality before; I’ve never focused on a celebrity before; and never addressed the politically charged topic of homosexuality before. These three elements combined to generate increased buzz and discussion--but why?

Sexuality: Does our sexual activity fall under the Lordship of Jesus? Is there a connection between sexuality and spirituality? In the 16-month life of this blog I’ve never written specifically about sex and the life of a disciple. My bad--it’s a significant part of how we express our devotion to Jesus: gay, straight, single, married, widowed, divorced. My failure to address the sexual part of our being effectively pushes sex into the closet, as if spiritual people do not concern themselves with sex. Big mistake. I’m determined to address this area soon.

Celebrity: Say what you want, Jennifer Knapp still knows how to promote an album. The twin interviews with Christianity Today and The Advocate certainly put her back into the public eye after a seven-year absence. And readers apparently care. What is it about celebrity that draws our attention? As followers of Jesus, why would we respond more strongly to her story than someone unknown? True, her celebrity stems from recording “sacred” music targeted at a Christian market, but what does this reveal about our values as consumers of Christian culture?

Discipleship: Jesus invites everyone: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28) He loves us just the way we are--but does he let us remain just the way we are? What activities are compatible with becoming a follower of Jesus? When--and how--does he change us? Do we want him to change us, or is Christianity simply another lifestyle choice we add as an accessory to our lives? His anger burned against religious hypocrisy. He called self-righteous people “snakes” and “blind guides.” Clearly, he urged them to repent. Yet when Jesus befriended tax collectors and prostitutes did he endorse their lifestyle? Although we have no record of it, can we imagine that the woman at the well in John 4 remained in her living arrangements? Is a life-long embrace of sin compatible with the life of a disciple? The yoke Jesus offers produces peace and rest--but it is still a yoke.

These three topics have saturated my thoughts in the last four days. I invite you to think them through and dialogue with me in the days to come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

When Famous Christians are Gay

EDITOR’S NOTE: I rarely comment on current events, and I have never commented on anyone by name before in this blog, but I was invited to submit a comment elsewhere, so I’ve revised and expanded those remarks here today.

Just the other day Jennifer Knapp, a highly regarded Christian singer released interviews with both Christianity Today and The Advocate announcing she is a lesbian. The interviews were timed with news of her new album, which she will promote on separate tours this summer--one with Christian singer Derek Webb, and the other with the Lilith Fair festivals. Some Christians are shocked and disappointed, others have lauded her courage. One thing for sure is gays and lesbians in our congregations will watch the reaction of the Christian community in the coming days. In my opinion Ms Knapp's’s situation shouldn’t rise to the level of requiring comment from the pulpit any more than other people’s sexuality requires comment. The news about Jennifer Knapp simply brings what is usually below the surface back to the surface for a few days. It is a difficult question for me because I hold strong convictions in several directions.

First–the Evangelical church in North America has failed gays and lesbians for years. We have vilified, condemned, and marginalized homosexuals while straight Christians have continued to commit any number of sexual sins. We look the other way when straight Christians engage in premarital sex, or adultery, or (I say this with great horror) sexually abuse others. Rarely–very rarely–are these sins called out from the pulpit. We have failed homosexuals by making their identity almost exclusively about their sexuality while we allow straight people to define themselves by other markers in their lives. We have done these things and more. The standard Evangelical response, “hate the sin, love the sinner” is wholly inadequate precisely because we rarely exhibit hatred for other sins. If we actively condemned greed and materialism in our churches while assuring greedy materialists that we still love them how many Christians trapped in those vices would feel comfortable enough to stick around?

My second conviction is that homosexual activity is sin, and like all sin, one of it’s most dreadful consequences is that sin holds people back from the full potential in their relationship with their Creator. As a pastor, I am concerned about gays and lesbians in their shortcomings in the same way I am concerned about everyone in my charge, and myself for that matter. The fact that the Evangelical church has horribly mistreated gays and lesbians for decades means that we have lost our moral standing and the practical ability to speak to gays and lesbians. Sin does not separate God from me, it separates me from God. The reason any sin should be addressed is out of concern for the individual and their life with God. God does not need us to defend him, but he requires us to intervene in the life of those we care about. True intervention requires grace and truth. Both are necessary because we are not complete without both.

Finally, as someone who values the scripture highly, I am positively distraught at the abuse of God’s word by people on all sides of this question. Proof-texting and finger-pointing are abuses that surely anger God now as they did in Jesus’ day. Ignoring and distorting the gift of the scriptures also harms the person who comes to the text looking to affirm themselves rather than to submit to God (and lest anyone misinterpret that last sentence, I am talking about all “sides” of this issue). While some Christians use the scriptures as bullet-points in an argument, others have pushed back from the table and determined that we cannot know God’s will in the matter. The well-intentioned effort to describe the Biblical witness about homosexuality as a matter of differing interpretations is, in my opinion, misplaced. When did claiming to be clueless about what it means to be a disciple become the mark of following Jesus?

Please permit me one last observation: in his earthly ministry Jesus angered religious people while putting sinful people at ease. Yet no one would seriously contend that Jesus gave anyone a “pass” on their sinful behavior. The only One who had the right to judge others found ways to befriend the sinner and infuriate the self-righteous. I want to be like Him.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Demanding the Impossible?

I’ve been going through the Sermon on the Mount with a group of university students since January.  We pray, read, talk, and try to come to terms with what Jesus meant. A few weeks ago I asked my friends, “How many of you think it’s possible to fulfill Jesus’ teaching in your everyday lives?” Only one person out of twenty raised a hand. One. Does this strike you as a problem?
Why would 19 out of 20 students invest a semester studying a sermon they had no hope of living up to? The Sermon on the Mount has been regarded as the essence of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew chapters 5, 6 & 7 have been called the constitution of the Kingdom of God. But like many famous Bible passages--like much of our worship--we honor the ideal and then return to the “real world,” leaving His words behind. Granted, these are challenging words from Jesus. Here's just a small sampling:
  • Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (5:19)
  • I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (5:22)
  • Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (5:48)
  • Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. (6:25)
  • For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks find; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (7:8)
  • Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (7:21)

The Sermon on the Mount brings this question into sharp focus, but it applies to all of Jesus’ actions and teaching--why would Jesus demonstrate or share the impossible with us? If he is the Master of Living, would he demand of us what we cannot give?
Here’s a Monday meditation: if we think of Jesus as the kind of person who would never say “be warm and filled” to a beggar without helping the poor man, why would we think of Jesus as commanding the impossible of his disciples? As students of Jesus, our answer makes all the difference. I invite you to share your answer in the "comments" section--I'm eager to read your opinion.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How to go through stressful times

Hold on! Can we jump backward a week? In the rush of Easter events there is little time for reflection. C.S. Lewis once said that an event is not complete until we have remembered it. The eight-day span from Palm Sunday to Easter is rich with the revelation of God’s goodness--why hurry into the next big thing while there is still so much to draw from what we have just experienced?

I’m still processing the beauty and humility of the night Jesus was betrayed. It was last Thursday, and John’s gospel gives us an open door into the heart of Jesus. It’s not history: it’s the living example of how to go through stressful times. There are at least five diamonds shining out from the darkness of John 13. I’m sure you can find more, but I’m struck with these reflections:

He showed them the full extent of his love (v1). Jesus demonstrated that sometimes the grand gesture is important. What more perfect love is there than the love of God? Yet Jesus determined that night to show them the “full extent” of his love. He washed their feet. Earlier in the week Mary had broken open a jar of fabulously expense perfume and covered his feet with the sweet-smelling ointment. He had received extravagant love and now he showed the same. The service due him he gave to others. In the middle of incredible stress Jesus lavished his attention on others.

The devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus (v2). The backdrop of the evening was betrayal. Jesus washed Judas’ feet as well. The very one who objected to Mary’s outrageous act of love was apparently willing to receive the full extent of the Jesus’ love.  Jesus knew the score and chose to serve even Judas. But should we be surprised? Before sunrise all the disciples except John would flee for safety. Peter would deny the Lord again and again (and again). Jesus served them all. In a setting of betrayal Jesus determined to pour forth his love and care. Under incredible pressure he met betrayal with love--he cared even for his oppressor. Perhaps that’s why the early church sang, “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power (v3). Does it seem strange that set in between love, betrayal, and service that the gospel reminds us of Jesus’ power? In stressful situations many people think of power as the ability to make things happen, to gain control of the situation. Yet Jesus allowed the events of the night to play out completely. On that difficult night Jesus did not grasp for control, even though he had power to do so. What if true empowerment expresses itself in terms of the confidence to obey the Father?

Jesus took off his outer clothing (v4). Jesus was secure in his identity. He had been given the Father’s power. Accordingly, he took off his outer garment, stripped to the waist and strapped a towel about himself. Can we understand the shock of the moment? Jesus became a picture of transparency, humility, and service. The Jewish culture of the day associated nakedness with shame-we have no equivalent emotion today. The most powerful man in the room was the one engaged in the work of a slave, bare to the eye, bowed before those who would worship him in just a few days. Of course, it was too much for Peter, who could not comprehend that a leader leads by serving. While the pressures of life may tempt us to cover up our real selves, Jesus demonstrated the way of transparency, humility, and service.

He asked them, “Do you understand?” (vs 12-17). Still, Jesus did not abandon his role as a leader that night. After he put on his clothes again and returned to the table, he resumed his role as Rabbi: this moment was too important to be left to mystery. He instructed them in the meaning and importance of his actions. Having led by serving, he served them by leading as well. Jesus was about to give a “new commandment” which would only make sense in the context of a servant’s heart. He explained the example he had set and clearly expected his disciples to attain to the same standard. Jesus’ answer to the worries of the night was to display power clothed in service. He became the standard for “love one another as I have loved you.”

These five gems shine for us. The stress of everyday living can be met with the example of Jesus, who conquered not only the grave but earth-bound responses to betrayal and hard times. Who could be content with learning about Jesus without the deep desire to become like him? Can we imitate the Master? His love in the face of betrayal is a call for us to love as he loved; to lead by serving and to serve by leading.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Deep Church: Does "Everyone get to play?"

It’s not often someone actually asks my opinion, but they did--so I gave it to them.  If you’re so inclined, check out my practical suggestions for opening up church life so that “everyone gets to play.”

Monday, April 5, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Forty Kingdom Days

So Easter’s over: what more is there to say?  Plenty, actually.  Jesus considered one topic so important he stuck around for another 40 days to continue teaching. 

Acts 1:3 reveals that the subject most important to Jesus during that time was the Kingdom of God. This should not surprise us. Before Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist declared that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. In his earthly ministry Jesus himself preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Now, with just a few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God is still his passion.

Some people think the emphasis of the book of Acts is on evangelism.  On the contrary, Acts is a Kingdom-of-God book from start to finish: Jesus stays with the disciples to further instruct them about God’s Kingdom.  By the time we reach the end of the book we discover the Apostle Paul receiving visitors and proclaiming the same message Jesus declared:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28: 30 - 31)
Believe me, when a New Testament book opens and closes with the same theme, it’s important!

Have you ever had to give last-minute instructions? Like Jesus or the Apostle Paul: what would be your last words? What important words could you leave with your best friends? They both chose to remind their friends about the message announced in the Old Testament and inaugurated in the New: the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because in our day we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today.

Here’s a meditation for Monday and beyond: what will you do with your time in the forty days after the resurrection? Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God. Perhaps he still wants us to embrace his teaching.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Easter Sunday: Choose Wisely!

What will Easter Sunday mean to you?  Choose carefully: how you celebrate Easter is an indicator of your potential as a student of Jesus. This “Holy Week”  is filled with powerful images of the Christian life: Jesus gave us a covenant meal on Thursday night--the very night he was betrayed. He suffered torture and death on Friday--a substitutionary death that paid the price for the sins of humanity. On Saturday he descended into the depths of Hades and kicked in the gates of Hell itself. And, of course, on Sunday he was resurrected with power, receiving the vindication of the Heavenly Father.

We can (and should) celebrate his death. His death on the cross is unique because of who he is—the sinless perfect Son of God: the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. No one else could accomplish what Jesus accomplished on the cross, because his perfect sacrifice came by virtue of his identity as God come to earth.  His sacrifice was for the sin of all people, in all times and in all places. His death was unique. One time. Once. For all. But I would like to ask a difficult question: Is Friday’s sacrifice enough?

When we concentrate on the substitutionary death of Jesus to the exclusion of his life and teaching we limit his ministry to a divine rescue mission—a rescue mission that only becomes effective for us when we die. Many Christians understand that they have no hope of heaven apart from the price Jesus paid on their behalf.  But apart from gratitude for his kindness there is little connection between what Jesus did then and how we can live today. Our appreciation for what he did does not empower us to fulfill his teaching. Our gratitude for his suffering does not release the wisdom, insight, or strength for each one of us to live as a new creation, a new kind of person.

Here is one of the secrets of the resurrection: on that first Easter Sunday Jesus opened not only the tomb, he opened new possibilities for everyone who would follow him. The resurrection was not only a supernatural event for Jesus, it also opened up the resources of heaven for all who would follow him. Jesus opened the womb of heaven. Picture him emerging from the garden tomb: something new came forth that day--the power of resurrection life operating in a human being. Resurrection life flowed into Jesus that day, but the Scripture reveals that it is now available to us as well: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Roman 8:11)  This verse is not about being raised up after we die, it’s about the power of the resurrection working in us now. Jesus was not only our model during earthly life, he is also a model of new creation operating in us even now: the nature and power of the resurrection dwell in each new child of God.  This is no mere formality. The womb of heaven has been opened by Jesus each believer has the potential to bring heaven to earth. Those who are born from above receive heaven’s DNA in them here and now. First Jesus, then us. Not only in resurrection from the dead but also empowerment for ministry.

Our ability to see Jesus as the firstborn among many is more than a Bible-study lesson.  Once we see him in this light, our role as children of God takes on new meaning, new possibilities, and new responsibilities.  He opened the way for us to continue his Kingdom mission.  Heaven’s resources poured into us.  Jesus relied upon the Holy Spirit to walk in obedience, and he sent the Holy Spirit to help us do the same.  He relied upon the Holy Spirit to do powerful works that authenticated his message, and he sent the Holy Spirit to do the same for us.

Jesus indeed came to save us from our sins; he also came to empower us to live Godly lives that can look substantially like his life. That empowerment burst forth from the grave on Easter Sunday. His mandate to disciple the nations is not possible apart from the power of the resurrection. The Book of Acts reveals what happens when students of Jesus operate in the power of the resurrection.

We must choose wisely during this Holy Week.  Are we celebrating sacrifice apart from empowerment? Are we celebrating history without receiving the gift of the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead? The open grave stands as a portal through which heaven flows into earth--not only on that first Easter Sunday, but everyday.