Sunday, June 10, 2018

Looking Beyond our Circumstances, 2 Cor. 4:16-18

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College, PA


I’ve known a number of people who started out well in the Christian life, then later turned away. None of them turned away because they had heard an irresistible argument that undermined their faith. Most of them just drifted away over time. Their faith became buried under all the stress of living in this world, or some of them became embittered by suffering. Here’s one of the strategies Screwtape, a senior demon, suggests to Wormwood, a demon who is trying to destroy the faith of a Christian: “Your man... doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.... Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 8). The idea is not to argue him out of the faith–because an argument could easily move in the other direction–but to encourage him to become so engrossed in the business of this world–“real life”–that the things of heaven seem remote and irrelevant. Screwtape goes on: “Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things” (p. 10). When we’re completely engrossed in the things of this world, the things of heaven seem remote and irrelevant.

This sort of thing easily destroys our spiritual lives. We become muddled and confused, and we begin thinking that we’re being silly to give so much attention to things we can’t see, talking to a person we’ve never met face to face, looking forward to a place where we’ve never been. Maybe it’s not really true. The “real world” seems so unquestionable. We have to deal with it every moment. And many people make a beginning in the Christian life but then turn back after awhile, not because they’ve heard an argument which undermined their faith, but because they’ve become completely engrossed in “real life,” the visible, physical realities around us. That pressure is there all the time. But it’s even greater when we experience suffering, which we all do at some point. The suffering is so real and painful, and the invisible realities of God’s kingdom can seem so distant. How do we prevent our faith from being overwhelmed by life in this world? How do we prevent the things of this world, both difficulties and joys, from crowding out our faith? Paul says some things in 2 Cor. 4:16 18 that can help us in this area.

The thing I want to emphasize in this passage is this: If we want to keep from being overwhelmed by our lives in this world, we need to learn, as Paul did, to live in the light of our future in eternity. We need to learn to weigh our present struggles–and our present enjoyments--in the balance with the eternal glory that awaits us; and we need to learn to live in the light of this comparison. We need to learn to live in the light of the reality of our eternal future.

The first thing to notice in this passage is Paul's description of his outward circumstances. He has just said, in v. 14, "we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence." Then, in v.16, he says, "Therefore, we do not lose heart." What he is saying is that, considered in themselves, apart from the assurance of his future resurrection and glorification, his outward circumstances would cause him to lose heart. If Paul judged his life by the world's standards, he would fall into despair.

He goes on to say that outwardly he is "wasting away." The word here was used of the corrosive effect of rust, or of moths eating away clothing. It is often tempting for God's people to assume that if we follow Him things will go well for us in the world. It wasn't this way for Paul. Things were going badly for him, by the world's standards.

Earlier in this chapter, he speaks of being hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. And in chapter one, he says "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life" (1:8). In 1 Cor. 15:19, he goes even further and says, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

We need to beware of thinking that godliness will bring us success in this world. It may have just the opposite effect, as it did with Paul. Paul was much more successful, by worldly standards, before he became a Christian. He says in Philippians: "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more...." He then goes on to describe his former way of life as a Pharisee, and then says: "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ" (Philippians 3:4, 7). Becoming a Christian did not cause Paul to prosper outwardly. He was much more successful, in that sense, before his conversion. He was the ideal, the sort of person everyone in his society looked up to. Becoming a Christian ruined all that. We'd be wise to arm ourselves with this knowledge, so that we are not overwhelmed and surprised when difficulties come our way.

The Puritans have been unfairly caricatured in our popular culture as stern, sour moralists whose greatest worry was that someone might be having a good time. The term “Puritanical” stands for everything our society hates. But the Puritans, in reality, were people who sought to order their lives in relation to God. They stood for godliness and a heartfelt commitment to the Lord in every area of life, and they did so during very difficult times. But listen to what J.I. Packer says about the long term success of their ministry. "The Puritans lost, more or less, every public battle that they fought. Those who stayed in England did not change the Church of England as they hoped to do, nor did they revive more than a minority of its adherents, and eventually they were driven out of Anglicanism by calculated pressure on their consciences. Those who crossed the Atlantic failed to establish new Jerusalem in New England; for the first fifty years their little colonies barely survived. They hung on by the skin of their teeth. But the moral and spiritual victories that the Puritans won by keeping sweet, peaceful, patient, obedient, and hopeful under sustained and seemingly intolerable pressures and frustrations give them a place of high honour in the believers' hall of fame, where Hebrews 11 is the first gallery." (A Quest for Godliness, p.23) They were faithful, godly people, but they were not successful in accomplishing their outward goals. They remind us, as Hebrews 11 does, that it is dangerous to assume that godliness will lead to success.

But Paul does not stop there. He is not content to simply describe his miserable circumstances in this life and leave it at that. I think our trouble is that often we are content to stop here. We say, "Oh, things are really going badly; let me tell you about it," but then we don't go any further.

"Yes," Paul says, "we are wasting away outwardly, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day." If we don't get beyond a description of out outward situation, we are forgetting who we are as Christians, and we are forgetting that Jesus has promised to be with us until the end of the age. If all we do is complain about our problems, we’ve forgotten the most important parts of the truth.

But we need to notice what Paul is not saying here. He is not saying that this inward renewal will eventually raise us to a level of spirituality where trials will not bother us anymore. He is not saying that, as God renews us inwardly day by day we will gradually reach a point of detachment from outward things so that we just won't care about what happens to us. He’s not recommending the practice of resignation, which passively accepts everything that happens, in a spirit of indifference–as if the things that happen in this world don’t really matter. Some branches of mysticism have taught this sort of thing, but this is not what Paul has in mind.

Paul is saying that, with each new trial that threatens to destroy us, God graciously comes to our rescue and keeps us from being overwhelmed. Look at what he says in verses 8 and 9. He says, "we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." It is this daily inner renewal that enables Paul, in each of these cases, to say "but not." These things are still difficult and painful, but because of the present reality of God's grace they do not destroy him. Being hard pressed does not lead, as it otherwise might, to being crushed, perplexity does not lead, as it would if Paul was left to himself, to despair.

But Paul does not stop even here. Each time God rescues him and keeps him from giving in to despair, Paul is reminded that one day all of this is going to end. Each act of deliverance points beyond itself to that time when God is going to deliver us finally from this world of suffering and death. When one problem follows another, it’s easy to begin thinking, “one of these days it’s going to crush me; I can’t keep holding on like this forever.” But the reality is that we are not holding on. God is holding on to us. And He is keeping us until that day when He will wipe away all tears from our eyes and we will see Him face to face. Each act of deliverance reminds us that this is true.

Notice the word "for," at the beginning of verse 17. We are being renewed day by day, for these trials are achieving for us an eternal glory. God delivers us now, because we belong to Him, and because He intends to deliver us fully in the future. Each deliverance, each manifestation of God's grace on our behalf, is a foretaste of what is to come.

In the light of eternity, we can say that these trials themselves are working on our behalf. They are achieving for us an eternal glory. It is not that they can ever become good in themselves, but that by enduring them and standing firm in our commitment to the Lord we are storing up treasure in heaven. That treasure is a gift of grace; we are not earning God's favor by our endurance. But God, as a gracious father, will reward us in His presence for standing firm.

Paul says that, when weighed in the balance with the eternal glory that is ahead, these troubles he is enduring are "light and momentary." What he says in Romans 8:18 is similar. "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." Paul is not trivializing the reality of suffering in this life. He is saying that our future glory is of such magnitude that, when it is placed in the balance with our present troubles, there is simply no comparison at all.

In the first place, this future glory is eternal, while our present troubles are temporary. The contrast here is so great that he can describe our current trials as "momentary." This present age, with all of its suffering and horror, is going to come to an end. The age to come, where our true home is, will never end. Life may, at times, seem long and tedious. But looking back–from the perspective of eternity–it will seem like “only a moment.”

In the second place, this future glory is greater in magnitude than our present sufferings. Jonathan Edwards describes it in this way. "God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied, To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean Therefore it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven...; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life." (Works, vol.2, p. 244). All the good we experience in this life is imperfect and temporary. God is the source of all good, and there we will see Him face to face. We’ll be there forever, and the glory will be so great that it will eclipse both the suffering and joy of life in this world.

Listen to what God said through the prophet Isaiah (65:17 19): “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”

This is the teaching, that we have this great hope before us which makes our present troubles, by comparison, seem light and momentary. But Paul still has something more to say. He is not content to simply fill our heads with ideas. He goes on to work out the practical implications of this teaching. “So,” he says, “because of all that I have been saying, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.”

Notice that he does not begin with this. We are not being asked to engage in pious wishful thinking, or to turn our thoughts away from the world because it will make us feel better to do so. No, he begins with the truth, and then, having stated that, he goes on to apply it.

He tells us to fix our eyes on things unseen, to intentionally turn our focus away from the things of this world and of time, and to set our minds on the things of eternity. How do we go about this? Let me make three practical suggestions in this area, before I close.

1) We need to be much in God's word. Our natural inclination is to be primarily focused on the things that demand our immediate attention. We need the continual correction and instruction that we receive from the Bible. Read it daily, think on it, pray over it, and ask God to transform your mind through it. The Bible consistently reminds us that this life is a pilgrimage, that this world is not our home. If we want to fix our eyes on things unseen, we need to immerse ourselves in Scripture.

2) Recognize that this is not a "once for all" thing. What Paul is describing here is the work of a lifetime, and a lifetime of effort in this area would come to nothing without the continual intervention of God's grace. So, let's fix our eyes on things unseen, crying out to Him for help. And when we forget for a period of time, as we will, cry out to God and start over again. The only way we really lose in this area is by giving up. Don’t worry about all your failures. Just get up, cry out to God for grace and mercy, and keep going.

3) We would do well to speak to ourselves, to remind ourselves often that our true home is not here. We need to take ourselves in hand and preach to ourselves about this. Martyn Lloyd Jones preached a series of sermons on spiritual depression (which was later published as a book), and he said that our trouble is often that we listen to ourselves rather than talking to ourselves. We need to follow the example of the Psalmist in Psalm 42: "Why are you downcast, Oh my soul, why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God." This same emphasis is found in a number of hymns. For example, Charles Wesley is oppressed by guilt, but instead of listening to himself, he says: "Arise, my soul, arise. Shake off thy guilty fears. The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears." He reminds himself of the truth of the Gospel. Thomas Ken is struggling to get out of bed to have devotions, and instead of lying there and going back to sleep, he addresses himself: "Awake, my soul, and with the sun thy daily stage of duty run. Shake off dull sloth and joyful rise to pay thy morning sacrifice." We need to do the same thing in this area, to speak to ourselves often and remind ourselves that this world is not our home and that there is an eternal weight of glory awaiting us.

Horatius Bonar, a Scottish preacher in the 19th century, said this: “We are but as wayfaring men, wandering in the lonely night, who see dimly upon the distant mountain peak the reflection of a sun that never rises here, but which shall never set in the ‘new heavens’ thereafter. And that is enough. It comforts and cheers us on our dark and rugged way” (quoted by Alister McGrath, The Journey, p. 138). We see it dimly–that’s why Satan’s tactic is so often to try and cloud our vision–but we look forward to a day when we will see clearly that sun which will never set. Let's make every effort to fix our eyes beyond our circumstances and into eternity, but lets also cry out to God and ask Him to grant us foretastes of glory, to support us on our journey. He is gracious, and delights in giving us good gifts.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

Jesus, the True Vine, John 15:1-27

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA


Carlo Carretto was a leader in an Italian youth movement called Catholic Action. He was an effective and respected leader, but in 1954, when he was 44 years old, he left his career behind and joined a community in the Algerian desert called the Little Brothers of Jesus. He went into the desert, because he became convinced that his assumptions about the Church were all wrong. He needed to get away from all the action to give himself some perspective, to give himself some time and space to see things in the light of God’s perspective. Here’s how he looked at things before he went away into the desert: “After creating the world, God went away to rest; with the Church founded, Christ had disappeared into heaven. All the work remained for us, the Church. We, above all those in Catholic Action, were the real workers, who bore the weight of the day“ (Letters From the Desert, p. 14). God had done the initial work of creating the world, and then, for a brief period, Christ appeared on earth and founded the Church. But having founded the Church, Christ had departed. Now He expects us to work for the Kingdom of God, but we’re more or less on our own. He’s given us instructions in His Word, but the “weight of the day,” the real burden of the work, rests on us.

In this section of John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing the disciples for His departure. He’s spent the past three years with them, instructing them, modeling the life of the kingdom. They’ve seen Him in all sorts of situations, casting out demons, healing the sick, miraculously providing for the crowds, confronting the religious authorities. And the idea is that they are to carry on His ministry after He is gone. That’s why they’ve been with Him for the past three years; it’s been a time of training. It’s been a time of preparation. During one of my years of graduate school, I was assigned to teach “Introduction to Western Religions” at Temple’s Ambler campus. I had been required to take a seminar the previous year on teaching religion at the college level, and when I received the assignment they told me I was supposed to cover Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And then I was on my own. The assumption was that my previous studies and training should be sufficient for the assignment I was given. Apart from turning in my grades at the end of the semester, I don’t think I had contact with the school leadership that whole semester. Something like this is happening with the disciples. They’re near the end of their training, and within a few days Jesus will be departing from them. So these chapters we’re looking at now are His instructions preparing the disciples for His absence.

But there’s this difference. They’re not really going to be on their own. They’re not being sent out away from Him. Things are going to change. He’s not going to be there with them in the flesh. But they’re going to be connected with Him; they’re going to be in union with Him, like branches connected to a vine. They’re not going to be on their own, like I was in the classroom at Temple, or like Carlo Carretto imagined he was in Catholic Action. Listen to Jesus’ words, as translated in The Message: “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.... This is how my Father shows who he is – when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.” They ‘re to maintain an intimate connection with Him. If they try to do it on their own, they’ll be headed for disaster: “apart from me you can do nothing.” All the things we do in connection with the church; all the behaviors that we associate with living a Christian life, are meaningless, unless we’re maintaining a close connection with Jesus Christ.

We often enjoy having cut flowers in our house. They bring something of the beauty of God’s creation. They add color and a sense of life to the atmosphere of our home. For awhile. No matter what we do, they eventually wither and die, because they’ve been disconnected from their source of life. Those flowers that initially bring a sense of life, eventually become a vision of death. As Christians, we’re not to be like cut flowers. We need to maintain our connection with Jesus Christ, the source of our life. If we don’t, we’ll eventually wither up and die. We may be able to keep up appearances for awhile, like cut flowers in water, but eventually it will become clear that we haven’t followed Jesus’ instructions to “remain in” Him. We’ve become disconnected from the source of our life and are now dead, decaying branches.

But if we stay connected with Jesus, if we “abide in” Him, He promises that we will bear much fruit. As is often the case, if you look into several commentaries you’ll find that there are a variety of opinions about what Jesus means by fruit. Some argue that this is the fruit of a transformed life, essentially the same thing as the fruit of the Spirit that Paul describes in Galatians 5. That’s what Peterson has in mind in The Message translation: “when you produce grapes – when you mature as my disciples.” Others insist that Jesus is talking about the fruit of our witness, people who become Christians because of our ministry. I’ve even heard sermons that questioned the salvation of anyone who wasn’t a successful soul winner. If you can’t point to specific individuals who’ve come to Christ through your witness, they said, you’re not bearing fruit. You’re going to be removed from the vine if things don’t change.

With questions like this, it’s always important to look at the general context. In chapter 14, Jesus has been talking about the importance of obedience. We show our love for Jesus and the Father by living in growing obedience to God’s Word. In the next section of chapter 15, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another, then He warns them that they will be hated by the world because they belong to Him. And then, at the end of the chapter, Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to testify about Him. But this is something they will do, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. The emphasis is on their concrete acts of obedience, not on their success in producing converts. The whole context in this section is about the transformation that flows from their relationship with Jesus; so the fruit that He’s talking about here is the fruit of a transformed life. This includes testifying about Jesus, bearing witness to Him, but the outward, measurable success of our witness isn’t what He has in mind. That’s God’s responsibility, not ours. When people turn to God, it’s because He’s awakened them and drawn them to Himself.

For example, when Paul was preaching in Macedonia, Luke says one of the women listening to him was a worshiper of God named Lydia. And then he says “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14b). Why did she listen eagerly? Because the Lord “opened her heart.” She was a worshiper of God, or a “God fearer.” This means that she was a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, but who hadn’t yet taken the step of becoming a convert. It was common for these people to attend synagogue worship regularly, but they remained on the fringes. So the Lord had been opening her heart for some time. Others had a part in the process, before Paul ever got there to preach the gospel. He was just the last person in the process. And it’s that way whenever someone turns to Christ; God is the one who opens our hearts, and He uses many people along the way to lead us to faith. Most of them have no idea that they’ve been part of the process. So it’s impossible to look around for fruit in terms of outward results in other peoples’ lives. The fruit Jesus is talking about here is the fruit that grows from our living connection to Jesus Christ. Here it is again in The Message: “This is how the Father shows who he is – when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.”

One of those fruits is listed in verses 9-17. As branches on the same vine, they’re to show love for one another. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He’s not saying that we need always to have warm, benevolent feelings toward each other. He’s telling us to follow His example in laying aside our own desires and showing love in concrete ways, as He did when He washed the disciples’ feet in chapter 13, and as He’s going to do very soon when He willingly lays down His life. “This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends” (The Message).

Christians are called to love one another and to show that love in concrete acts of service. We saw that in chapter 13. John says the same thing in his first letter: “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality” (1 John 3:16-19a, The Message). John, in this passage, is just developing and applying Jesus’ words: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Another thing that follows from our connection with Jesus is in verses 18-25: because of our relationship with Him, our relationship to the world has changed forever. We no longer belong to this world as we once did, and because of this the world hates us, just as it hates Him. When I was studying in the religion department at Temple University I noticed this: people in the department were very open-minded, for the most part. One woman was into new age spiritualities and she talked freely, with much enthusiasm, about her practices. We had Islamic fundamentalists, Buddhist monks, Jews, Hindus, and secularists with an interest in the phenomenon of religion. There was a real spirit of openness toward all these things. The only position that these people found really intolerable was believing Christianity. Why is that? Because Christians, in a way that is not true of any of these other religions, do not belong to this world: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.”

Why did the Roman Empire persecute the Church so bitterly during the first three centuries? One of the major reasons was that the Christians were seen as a group of people who didn’t belong. They somehow weren’t connected with the rest of society. One scholar explains it this way: “The Christian movement was revolutionary not because it had the men and resources to mount a war against the laws of the Roman Empire, but because it created a social group that promoted its own laws and its own patterns of behavior. The life and teachings of Jesus led to the formation of a new community of people called ‘the church.’ Christianity had begun to look like a separate people or nation” (Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. 119). This is just saying, in a different way, what Jesus said to His disciples: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.”

The only way they can possibly carry on in this way – being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, loving one another in concrete acts of service, even to the extent of laying down their lives, and enduring the hatred of the world – is to maintain a close connection with Jesus. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” We maintain a strong connection with Jesus through prayer, meditation on His Word, laying aside our own desires in service to one another (as in chapter 13), by growing in obedience (as in chapter 14), and by regularly gathering together to worship and encourage one another (loving one another in the body of believers involves the concrete act of gathering together regularly). May He be with us and bless our efforts to abide in Him.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Living at Peace with God, Romans 5:1-11

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College, PA

In 1977, I was working with a traveling team in Uttar Pradesh, a state in North India. We stopped for a day or two at the office while the state leader was away, and as I was going through his books I picked up Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, a series of sermons by the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who at that time was the pastor of Westminister Chapel in London. I started reading and was so taken by it that I couldn't set it aside. When we left, I took it with me, even though it wasn't possible to get permission to borrow it; I just couldn't part with it at the time. (I did later return it and eventually bought my own copy).

That book changed the way I read Scripture, because Lloyd-Jones was so insistent on observing the context and paying attention to why the authors of Scripture said things in the way they did. So often we go wrong by taking a verse or a chapter out of context without being careful to observe what the author is trying to say and why he goes about saying it in the way he does.

Lloyd-Jones also spent thirteen years expounding the book of Romans, and at the beginning of his exposition of Romans 5, he points to the importance of the word "therefore:" He says, "I sometimes think that the whole secret of the Christian life is to know how to use the word ‘Therefore.' The Christian life is in many ways a matter of logic, a matter of deduction. The Christians who have shined most brightly throughout the centuries have always been those who have been able to use this ‘Therefore.' Correspondingly most failures in the Christian life are to be traced to an inability to use this word" (Romans: Assurance, pp. 1-2).

What Paul is doing in these early verses of chapter five is drawing a conclusion. In the beginning of the letter, through the early part of chapter three, he demonstrates that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are guilty of sin and are unable to save themselves by obeying the Law. Then he makes this great statement in the middle of chapter 3: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (vv. 21-22). He continues to discuss this through the end of the chapter and then turns aside, in chapter 4, to answer the question this raises about Abraham and whether Abraham was also justified by faith rather than works. And then, having answered that question, he begins to discuss what this means for us. His word "therefore" tells us to recall what he has been saying and to understand that he is drawing a conclusion.

The first thing he says is that "having been justified by faith, we have peace with God." We need to pause here and take note of an alternate reading. Most Bibles have a footnote attached to this verse saying something like "Other ancient authorities read let us," or "let us have peace with God," rather than "we have peace with God." This alternate reading is an exhortation; it's telling us to do something, calling for a response. The overwhelming textual evidence is in favor of this alternate reading, and yet nearly all translators and commentators are agreed in rejecting it.

The difference between the two readings is only one letter, and in use they sounded pretty-much the same. The way multiple copies of manuscripts were made in the days before printing and photocopying was that one reader would read the text to multiple copiers, who would write down what they heard. So it's easy to see how, in this case, the wrong word could have crept into the text. In one very important manuscript the original copier wrote "let us have," and someone later corrected it to "we have." The reason the great majority of translators and commentators agree with this corrector is that "let us have peace with God" really doesn't fit with what Paul is doing here. He is making a series of statements about things that are true of us in Christ rather than exhorting us to respond in a particular way. So I think we can be confident that the reading we find in the text is the correct one, rather than the alternate that is listed in the margin.

What does it mean that we are at peace with God? Paul is not talking here about a feeling of inner peace, as he is, for example, in Philippians 4:7, when he says "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." He's saying, as he points out later in this passage, that before we were justified we were God's enemies, that we were living in rebellion against the source of all good. We've been alienated from God, and now we are restored to have a relationship with Him, to have access into His presence. To be at peace with God means not that we feel a sense of inner peace but that we are free to enter God's presence as His children, as those who've been adopted into His family. We may not always feel good about our spiritual state; we may feel unworthy to come before God in prayer; but the truth is that we are at peace with Him and are welcome in His presence.

Paul goes on to stress that our peace with God in Christ is very secure. He says that we have "gained access to this grace," this sphere of favor with God. John Stott points out that "gained access" suggests that we took the initiative and says that a better translation might be that we have been introduced, "which acknowledges our unfitness to enter, and our need for someone to bring us in" (Romans, p. 140). We have been introduced to this grace, through no effort or worthiness of our own, and Paul describes us as "standing" in this grace. Here is Stott again: "Justified believers enjoy a blessing far greater than a periodic approach to God or an occasional audience with the king. We are privileged to live in the temple and in the palace. The perfect tenses express this. Our relationship with God, into which justification has brought us, is not sporadic but continuous, not precarious but secure." Paul makes this clear in vv 9-10. Since God has done this very difficult work of redeeming us when we were His enemies, how much more will He bring this work to completion.

Christians tend to go wrong in two ways about security. Charles Finney, the 19th Century American revivalist, has had an immense influence on some forms of present-day Evangelicalism. He said, in his Systematic Theology, that a "Christian... is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys or Antinomianism is true ... In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground"(p. 46). I've known Christians who were influenced by him (often without even knowing his name) who saw themselves as moving back and forth between a saved a lost state, depending on whether or not they were living in perfect obedience and had remembered, and confessed, every sin. There's more that we could say about Finney and his theological orientation, but this hardly fits with Paul's description of "standing in grace." In Finney's view, and in the view of those who follow him, the Christian position is an extremely precarious one.

But I've also talked to people at the opposite extreme, who have no interest in Christ or the gospel, who would never set foot in a church but who are perfectly assured of their salvation because they went forward in an evangelistic meeting years ago and were told that they were saved for all eternity no matter what else happens. I had a conversation with a man once who told me that he was embittered against the church, didn't read his Bible and hated Christians. But he told me he was confident that he would be in heaven because he had been saved when he was 13, and "once saved, always saved." I don't doubt that he had good reason for his bitterness; awful things often happen in churches. But his understanding of salvation is very different from that of the apostle Paul. Being at peace with God, being reconciled to Him and standing in a state of grace means that we are living in a relationship with Him. It certainly doesn't fit in with the idea that we go forward in a meeting, say a prayer and then understand this as a ticket to heaven with no further thought of God until after our death. Being reconciled to God, being free to commune with Him, is a great privilege, not a chore.

Paul says, next, that God wants us to be aware of His love for us. He's objectively demonstrated that love by giving His Son to die for us: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." While we were living in active rebellion as God's enemies, He gave His only Son to bear the penalty of our sins. So God has objectively demonstrated His love for us, but the problem is that it's difficult for us to believe this. And even if we believe it, it's difficult for us to remember, because we so often sin and come under a sense of condemnation because of our sin. So at times it's almost impossible for us to be assured of God's love for us, despite all that He has done objectively to show us His love.

But Paul says that God has done something about this, that "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." It's clear from the following context that Paul is not talking here about our love for God but about His love for us. He's saying that the Holy Spirit, who has been given to all of us who believe in Him, pours into our hearts a realization of God's love for us. Sometimes He does this in an extraordinary way. A friend of ours who was a missionary in India for many years was going through a difficult time, feeling like she wasn't accomplishing anything of value and overwhelmed with a sense of emptiness. But then, one day God came to her and gave her a strong sense of His healing presence and repeated, over and over to her, the words "you are precious to me."

Henry Venn was a pastor in England in the 18th Century, a contemporary of the Wesleys and Whitefield. He had five young children when his wife died, and he wrote to a friend shortly afterward, "Did I not know the Lord to be mine, were I not certain His heart feels even more love for me than I am able to conceive, were not this evident to me, not by deduction and argument, but by consciousness, by His own light shining in my soul as the sun's doth upon my bodily eyes, into what a deplorable situation should I have been now cast?" (Lloyd-Jones, p. 82). Venn was in a position of great need, and God came to him with a strong and unmistakable assurance of His love.

But it doesn't always happen in such an extraordinary way. Sometimes God assures us of His love in quieter, more subtle ways, and yet we are reminded and assured that He loves us and is caring for us. Some years ago I was in the process of interviewing for a job that I very-much wanted to get. I didn't like the work I was doing at the time and felt very stressed about what was ahead in the future. I was going about my day at work, lifting up brief prayers about this when suddenly my whole outlook changed. I didn't have an overwhelming spiritual experience; it was more like my eyes were opened to a different way of looking at things and I knew that God had the situation in His care, that He loved me and would do the best thing. I remember this, that I was walking through a door at the time and when I came to the door I was thinking about it in one way, and as I passed through it all changed. I didn't do anything; it's not that I was able to reason myself into a different way of thinking. The Holy Spirit assured me, in a very quiet way, of God's love and care. From that moment I was able to leave the situation in His hands in a way that I was unable to do until then.

The last thing is that being secure in Christ and knowing God's love for us leads us to rejoice. Paul says we "rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (v. 2). We rejoice in our hope for the future of sharing in God's glory, being in His presence. Hope, as it's used in the New Testament, is different than the way we use the word when we say things like, "well, I sure hope this works out." John Stott describes it as "a joyful and confident expectation which rests on the promises of God" (p. 140). It's a hope because it lies in the future and we don't yet have full possession of it, but it is a secure and stable hope in the future, rooted in the promises of God.

We not only rejoice in our hope for the future; Paul goes on to say that we "rejoice in our sufferings" (v. 3), because our sufferings, in communion with Christ, are transforming us into the image of God, preparing us to live in His presence. It's not that suffering is good in any way. It's that because of our certain hope for the future, suffering is able to bring about good things, things for which we will be grateful when we arrive in God's kingdom. As Paul says a few chapters later in this letter, "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us" (8:18). And then, in verse 11, he says "More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." We who were formerly God's enemies living under His condemnation are now reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ. And because of that we are able to rejoice in God. He is no longer a source of terror and condemnation but a loving Father in whom we find joy.

Years ago I was at a conference in Belgium, and we were all sleeping in an auditorium in sleeping bags. At six in the morning, this guy came bouncing in and yelled, "alright boys, it's time for exercises." I thought he was entirely too cheerful for that time of the morning and I was sure he was faking it. In fact, I found him so irritating that I had negative thoughts of him from time to time over the next two years while I was in India. But when I returned to Belgium I ended up sharing a room with him for a few weeks and I found him to be an absolute delight to be around. His joy was deep and genuine, and he cared deeply about the people he came into contact with. He was a model of the deep spiritual joy we can know as people who've been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

Samuel Rutherford was a Scottish preacher in the 1600's. Here's something he wrote from prison: "Would to God that all this kingdom, and all that know God, knew what is betwixt Christ and me in this prison–what kisses, embracements, and love communion! I take his cross in my arms with joy; I bless it, I rejoice in it. Suffering for Christ is my garland. I would not exchange Christ for ten thousand worlds! Nay, if the comparison could stand, I would not exchange Christ with heaven" (The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, p. 213). As we continue in this Lenten season, may God enable us to know the certainty of our hope in Him, the stability of our position as we stand in this grace to which He has introduced us and to experience more and more the joy of His fellowship.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Matthew 5:12, Ash Wednesday Meditation

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College, PA


A few years ago I was talking to a woman on my case load about her financial situation and she informed me that she owed more than $27,000 in fines. She didn't have a job, and her sole income was from Social Security Disability, which was less than $1,000 per month. During the time I worked with her, she wasn't paying anything toward her fines; all the money she received each month was needed to pay for her housing and food. She told me, more than once, that she knew she'd spend the rest of her life in debt, that there was no possibility of paying off her fines.

The Lord's Prayer assumes that we are always in debt because of our wrongdoing. Although we usually pray "forgive us our trespasses," "forgive us our debts" is the correct translation of this passage. It's OK to pray the prayer as we do, but when we come to this verse in Matthew we need to translate it as "debts." Our sins have put us in a position where we are in debt to God, a debt we can never repay from our own resources. But this prayer also assumes that others are in need or our forgiveness. Pope Benedict, in the first volume of his series Jesus of Nazareth, says that this petition "presupposes a world in which there is trespass" (p. 157), a world in which we commit sins against God and against one another, a world in which debts because of wrongdoing are part of daily life.

A friend of mine who grew up in a very conservative church felt guilty for growing a beard, and periodically, when the guilt became too much for him, he would shave it off. Often we feel guilty for no good reason. But our basic guilt before God is an objective reality whether we feel guilty or not. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are in need of God's mercy and forgiveness. We stand before God in the position of debtors, people who are guilty of violating His law. And we are also guilty of sins against one another; we need to receive forgiveness from others and others need to receive forgiveness from us. We live in a world "in which there is trespass," against God and against one another.

But this prayer also assumes that God is concerned about our guilt and wants to forgive us. Not only us, He also wants to forgive some of the people we might wish He wouldn't forgive, like those who have betrayed us, or those who have brought suffering into our lives. Or those with whom we disagree politically. Or those who have set themselves up as our enemies in the workplace. No matter how serious and inexcusable our guilt, God's desire is to offer forgiveness and admit us into His kingdom.

And the third, and most distressing, thing this prayer tells us is that God wants us to imitate Him in offering forgiveness to others. Sometimes this is relatively easy, but often forgiving others is a process. If someone has deeply wronged us we probably won't be able to forgive all at once. If we try to offer forgiveness too quickly and lightly, we may end up deceiving ourselves and accepting a counterfeit, something that looks like the real thing but isn't.. The question is how to get from where we are to where we know we should be. And this begins with a recognition of the truth about ourselves. If we're angry and bitter, if we just can't let go of the wrong, we need to begin by admitting this in God's presence. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that making use of the Vengeance Psalms, these Psalms that Christians often struggle with because of their anger and violence, can, surprisingly, be the first step toward learning forgiveness: "The articulation of vengeance leads us to a new awareness about ourselves.… John Calvin describes the Psalms as ‘An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul.' And so they are. They tell us about us. The Psalms provide space for full linguistic freedom in which nothing is censored or precluded" (Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, p. 58). He suggests that instead or censoring these Psalms we bring them into God's presence and admit that they reflect the truth about how we feel.

Praying the Psalms, including those psalms where the authors are crying out for vengeance, provides a context for facing the truth about what is in our hearts. As much as we want to be like Jesus in asking forgiveness for those who hate us, we can't get there without acknowledging what we really feel. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, says the same thing; praying these difficult Psalms can actually point us in the direction of forgiveness: "For those who are troubled about the psalms of vengeance, there is a way beyond them. But that way is not easy or ‘natural.' It is not the way of careless religious goodwill. It is not the way of moral indifference or flippancy. It is, rather, the way of crucifixion, of accepting the rage and grief and terror of evil in ourselves in order to be liberated for compassion toward others.... My hunch is that there is a way beyond the psalms of vengeance, but it is a way through them and not around them. And that is so because of what in fact goes on with us. Willy nilly, we are vengeful creatures. Thus these harsh psalms must be fully embraced as our own. Our rage and indignation must be fully owned and fully expressed. Then (and only then) can our rage and indignation be yielded to the mercy of God. In taking this route through the Psalms, we take the route God has gone. We are not permitted a cheaper, easier, more ‘enlightened' way" (Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, p. 68). We bring our unforgiving thoughts into God's presence and allow Him to heal us, to enable us to forgive as He does.

But we need to ask one more question. When we pray "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," does this imply that God only forgives us to the extent that we forgive others? We really don't know fully what is in our hearts. We may think that we've forgiven someone, only to find anger and resentment welling up that we didn't know was there. If we say that we are forgiven only to the extent that we fully and completely forgive others, we're essentially saying that we can't be forgiven; we're setting an impossible standard. In this case, we're not justified by faith through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; we're forgiven by exercising forgiveness. Our forgiveness of others becomes the primary thing, the condition upon which God forgives us. But really the movement goes in the opposite direction. God forgives us fully and freely, and then we are called to forgive others in the same way. If we refuse to forgive we're showing that we haven't truly understood what it means for God to forgive our sins.

But struggling, and often failing, to forgive those who have wronged us is not the same thing as refusing to forgive. We're called to cultivate forgiveness, to cry out to God for grace to forgive, to take steps in the direction of forgiving from our hearts those who've wronged us; but our forgiveness at its best is an imperfect imitation of the forgiveness that God has granted us. Here's how Paul says it in Colossians: "Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (3:13). The Gospel of Jesus Christ first brings healing to our relationship with God, but then it also begins healing our relationships with one another. And this begins when we show others mercy because God has shown us mercy.

The truth about us, as fallen human beings, is that we are debtors and can never, even if we had all eternity to do it, pay off our debt. Paul says that by nature we have "no hope and [are] without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). Our condition, as fallen human beings, is absolutely hopeless; but Paul continues after this with one of his great phrases: "But now…." This was once true of you, but now everything has changed because of God's mercy and grace. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:13). We can pray these words from the Lord's Prayer in confidence because Jesus has paid in full the debt for our sins, a debt that we were incapable of ever paying. The Christian music group, Glad, has a wonderful song about this: "Be ye glad, oh, be ye glad, every debt that you ever had has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord, be ye glad be ye glad be ye glad." Every debt has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord. Surely this is a reason for gladness. John Newton, that notorious slave trader who experienced God's mercy, said near the end of his life, "Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior." It would be a good thing, during this Lenten season, to meditate on the price Jesus paid to relieve us of our overwhelming debt; the more aware we are of God's mercy toward us, the better-able we will be to show mercy toward one another.

A Glimpse of Jesus' Glory, Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, State College PA


When I was in graduate school at Temple University, I worked part time in the continuing education department of a mission organization. The man I worked for was intensely concerned about people's perceptions. He told me that whenever he was going into a new setting he would try to figure out what the people wanted and then he'd adapt himself to fit their expectations. He functioned in ministry more-or-less like a chameleon. The problem was that I was never sure who he was, because he was so successful at changing himself. It always seemed like he was putting on a show, that he had no real convictions of his own. The longer I worked with him, the less I respected him, and I wondered in the end whether he even remembered who he was. I was more impressed when we first met than I was after I got to know him. A few years later, I was talking to the man who had been my pastor at Messiah College about a man we knew who had been very successful at planting Spanish-speaking churches in Florida. He said, "with many people, as you get to know them you find that there's less than appears on the surface; but he's not that way; the more you get to know him the more you see of his depth and character." This man is quiet and unassuming, but as you talk to him, even for a short time, you find that there is a lot hidden beneath the surface.

Peter, James, and John, at the Transfiguration, are given a glimpse into the hidden depths of Jesus' glory. They're finding that there's more to Him than what they've been able to see on the surface. It's not that they haven't known before now who He is. Just six days earlier, Peter had made his great confession: "You are the Messiah" (8:9). The disciples have grasped something of the truth, but now they're enabled to see the truth in a way, and with a depth, that they haven't before. The Transfiguration is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke); Peter refers to it in his second letter: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain" (vv. 16-18). John may be referring to this event in his gospel when he says, "we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). This event stayed with them; it had a major impact on them that remained for the rest of their lives. The disciples are given, in this event, a brief glimpse into the fathomless depths of Jesus' glory.

The first thing to notice in these verses is the continuity of Jesus' ministry with the Old Testament: "And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus." Moses represents the Old Testament law, and Elijah is there as the representative of the prophets. The presence of these two stresses Jesus' continuity with their ministries. Jesus isn't doing something novel; He is doing something new, but what He's doing is connected with what has gone before.

It's important for us to keep coming back to this, because our contemporary society has an attitude of arrogant superiority toward the past. The gospel is rooted in God's revelation in the Old Testament; our faith is strongly rooted in things God has said and done in the past. I often hear Protestants, especially Evangelical Protestants, speak disdainfully about tradition, but often what they're talking about is the way things have been done in a particular church. Those things often need to change, sometimes because they're connected to cultural trends that have passed, and sometimes because they were just wrongheaded to begin with. God often calls us to make changes in these kinds of things.

But there's another way of thinking about tradition that involves stepping back and considering not just our own church or our own denomination, but the Church throughout history. The early Church spoke about the apostolic tradition, some of which was written down and some of which was embodied in the corporate worship of the Church. As they encountered false teachings which required some response, they formulated creeds, authoritative statements of some of the central teachings of Scripture. And they sought, looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance, to determine the limits of the Canon, which books belonged as part of Scripture. Every time we open our Bibles we're relying on the Tradition of the Church, we're trusting that Christians of the past have gotten it right. We're trusting that God led the Church in the past to make the right decision about which books were part of His permanent, authoritative revelation and which ones were not. Christianity is inherently traditional. That doesn't mean that we only sing old hymns. It means that we respect what has been handed to us from the past. It means that every time we read Scripture we are making present things that happened in history thousands of years ago. And it means recognizing that we're able to read Scripture because of the diligent efforts of millions of other believers throughout history; we're connected with these people as part of the body of Christ, and we owe them an immense debt of gratitude.

Over the next several months, these disciples are going to experience things that will turn their worlds upside down. They're going to have to unlearn all the assumptions they've grown up with about contact with the Gentile world, because Jesus is going to lead them to take the gospel to all nations. They're going to have to make radical changes about things that have been very important to them, but these changes are rooted firmly in God's revelation in the past. The thing that's absolutely essential for them at this point is to know the truth about Jesus. So they're given this brief glimpse of His glory, a glimpse that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

The second thing to notice is the superiority of Jesus' ministry. His ministry is in continuity with the Old Testament, but He's not just one prophet among many (which is how Muslims understand Him). When Peter sees what is happening, he blurts out, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." The problem is that he's thinking of Jesus as part of the group, he's putting these three on more-or-less equal footing. So a bright cloud envelops them and a voice from the cloud says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" The voice of God sets Jesus apart and says, "This is the One I want you to listen to."

Jesus' ministry is connected with that of Moses and Elijah, but it's not on the same level. He's the fulfillment of their ministries, the One they were pointing to and looking forward to. As the author of Hebrews says, "So, my dear Christian friends, companions in following this call to the heights, take a good hard look at Jesus. He's the centerpiece of everything we believe, faithful in everything God gave him to do. Moses was also faithful, but Jesus gets far more honor. A builder is more valuable than a building any day. Every house has a builder, but the builder behind them all is God. Moses did a good job in God's house, but it was all servant work, getting things ready for what was to come. Christ as Son is in charge of the house" (3:1-6, The Message).

These things that they see and hear are overwhelming. In Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, he says: "When the disciples heard this, they fell face down, terrified." I enjoy looking at icons, paintings of Jesus and the saints that originate in Eastern Orthodox churches. They often help me see things about biblical events that I would have missed otherwise. The icon of the transfiguration has Jesus, standing on the pinnacle of a mountain, in a background of light (called a mandorla, a device intended to show the reality of heaven breaking into the world). Moses and Elijah are on either side, bowed toward Him to show their submission. And Peter, James and John have fallen backward further down the mountain, overcome by the glory of Jesus. Looking at that icon gives me a glimpse of what it might have been like to have been there on that day.

The third thing to notice is that this revelation of His glory is directly connected with Jesus' predictions of the rejection and suffering He is going to endure. Seeing the glory of Jesus revealed in this way, knowing that this is the truth of who He is, we might expect that He'd allow this to be seen in His public ministry. After all, wouldn't people be more likely to believe if they saw what the disciples are seeing on the top of the mountain? But He doesn't do that; He tells the disciples, "As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." After this brief glimpse, His glory becomes hidden again, and He continues on the way to the cross. He "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8).

In many ways, the disciples are being stretched to the breaking point. Just a few days earlier, after Peter had made his great confession, saying "You are the Messiah," Jesus had begun "to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again: (8:31). This is too much for Peter, knowing what he does about Jesus. If Jesus is "the Messiah," how can He possibly be talking about suffering and death? "And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him" (v. 32). All their expectations for the Messiah are being shattered. They've seen this overwhelming revelation of Jesus' glory on the mountain, and yet He's still talking about dying and rising from the dead.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has a wonderful series of meditations on the icons of Christ. In his meditation on the transfiguration icon, he makes this observation: "It is surely not an accident that it is Peter and James and John who are also with Jesus in Gethsemane: the extreme mental and spiritual agony that appears there is the test of what has been seen in the transfiguration. We are shown that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror" (The Dwelling of the Light, p. 12).

He goes on: "This is an icon of quite violent force, explosive quality; it shows an extreme experience. We may find it difficult to relate to it at first for that reason: we may be struck and impressed by it, yet feel also that nothing in our own experience corresponds to this. We weren't there; we haven't seen the skies opening, the light suffusing the lonely figure on the rock, the weight of divine presence forcing us back, bowing us down. But the point of this, as of any icon, is not either to depict or to produce some kind of special experience in that sense: it is to open our eyes to what is true about Jesus and the saints. And what is true about Jesus is – if we really encounter it in its fullness – shocking, devastating: that this human life is sustained from the depths of God without interruption and without obstacle, that it translates into human terms what and who God the Son eternally is. The shock comes from realizing this means that God's life is compatible with every bit of human life, including the inner terrors of Gethsemane (fear and doubt) and the outer terrors of Calvary (torment and death).... The point of this image of the transfiguration is to reinforce how the truth about Christ interrupts and overthrows our assumptions about God and about humanity" (pp. 11-12). That's what is happening to the disciples, and it's what happens to us when we encounter God in truth: He interrupts and overthrows our assumptions.

We're especially conscious right now, with Lent beginning in a few days, that Jesus is headed toward Gethsemane and the cross. It doesn't shock us that Jesus reveals His glory in such a powerful way and then continues on His journey toward Jerusalem. But part of the purpose of the Lenten season is to seek to enter into the experience of these disciples, to accompany Jesus on His journey toward the suffering of Holy Week, so that we'll also be able to taste something of the wonder and joy these same disciples experienced on Easter Sunday. I often think we hinder ourselves from this by jumping too quickly to the Resurrection, telling ourselves, "yes, but of course Jesus is risen from the dead now; all that is over."

Our experience is different than that of the apostles. But we're dealing with the same God, and if we think about it at all it might give us some pause when we realize what a shattering experience it was for them to encounter the reality of God's purposes. Their lives were turned upside down; all their assumptions were overthrown; they were called to make changes they never in their wildest dreams imagined making. Often our carefully protected assumptions are ways of protecting ourselves from God's interruptions. But from time to time we get glimpses of the fact that God has something very different in mind (something better, but, at the same time, threatening). Williams, reflecting on the disciples' experience at the Transfiguration, says "Looking at Jesus seriously changes things; if we do not want to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long. The apostles in the icon are shielding their eyes, because what they see is not easily manageable in their existing world" (p. 13). When we encounter God, He often calls us to make changes, both in our thinking and in our daily lives, that are not easily manageable in our existing worlds.

But the purpose of the Lenten season is to make space for Jesus, for Jesus as He is, not as we imagine Him to be. So let's cry out to Him, asking Him to make Himself known to us in truth. The wonderful thing in the Transfiguration is the realization "that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror." We can enter into the depths of human experience and find that God is there with us, that Jesus Himself knows what our darkest times are like from the inside. When the disciples are overcome by terror, Jesus comes to them, touches them and says "Get up and do not be afraid." In the same way, this One who revealed His great glory on the Mount of Transfiguration will walk with us in all the experiences of life until we arrive safely in His presence. He shatters our illusions out of kindness, so that we'll be able to perceive Him when He comes to us, so that we'll be able to hear Him when He says, "do not be afraid."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Waiting for God's Promise, Luke 2:25-38

In the early 1980's, Annie and I worked with Operation Mobilization, on the ship Logos. We joined the ship in Sri Lanka, then traveled up the west coast of India, then to Pakistan and Dubai, and then into the Red Sea, visiting Sudan and Jordan. In each port, we sold books (both Christian and secular) and had conferences for local Christians on various subjects. In some of these countries our programs were restricted, but we were at least able to minister to local churches, and in most places we had evangelistic programs as well.

The Middle East was difficult. We were in Dubai and Sudan during Ramadan, and the local people were grouchy and impatient, because they couldn't eat during the day. In Jordan, we had a large book exhibition in the capital city of Amman and sold lots of books, but it was a tense, difficult time. We always had the sense of being watched, and one of the political officials was determined to coerce us into giving him as many free books as possible. By the time we left Jordan, many of us were exhausted and fed up with the Middle East.

From Jordan, we sailed through the Suez Canal and into Alexandria, Egypt, to begin our scheduled program there. But as soon as we lowered the gangway, armed guards boarded the ship and wouldn't let anyone leave. The next day, we were sent out to anchor while the line-up team talked to officials, trying to find out what was happening. All the necessary permissions had been obtained well in advance, and local churches were looking forward to the visit. We sat at anchor for a week, within sight of the city but unable to reenter the port. The line-up team finally learned that the Islamic Brotherhood had made terroristic threats against the ship, and that the Egyptian government was unwilling to take the risk of letting us carry on in the light of these threats.

During that week, while we sat at anchor, we had days of prayer and fasting, asking God to reopen this door that had closed. Some of the ship people were really enthusiastic, rebuking Satan and claiming victory, perfectly assured that God would reverse the Egyptian government's position so that we could carry on our program there. But some of us were so fed up with the Middle East that we didn't want to go back into port. We didn't really care that the program in Alexandria had been canceled. We were happy to go somewhere else and found it impossible to pray fervently for the doors to reopen. We were emotionally and spiritually drained. But none of us–those who were claiming victory or we who were cynically pleased for a temporary reprieve from the tensions of ministry in the Islamic world–had any idea what God was going to do. Our ministry–carefully planned and prepared in advance–had come to a stop, and it soon became apparent that God had something else in mind.

After a week, we sailed to Cyprus, and then to Lebanon, just north of Beirut, where God had miraculously opened a door. A week before our arrival in Lebanon, a ship had been sunk at the very place where Logos sat at anchor, and it wouldn't have been safe for us to be there. A week after we left, the president had been assassinated and conditions in the country deteriorated. This was probably the only week during that decade when we could have visited. But God provided, in a surprising way, this brief period, during which we were able to openly and boldly proclaim the gospel.

Christianity is not just a system of ideas or a code of morality. We have to do with the Living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The Christian life is not primarily about what we do for God. It's about what God is doing. This is exciting, but it can also be unsettling, because He will often lay aside our plans and programs because He has something better in mind. We usually have very definite ideas about what He should be doing, but He doesn't consult with us. He doesn't submit to our careful planning. Following Him is unsettling, because we are not in control.

When we arrived in Lebanon, we were startled by the peoples' outlook on life. They had no sense of hope for the future. They had been living constantly in the presence of violence and death, and they had come to expect the worst. They were amazed, they told us, that someone had been willing to come from the outside world to minister to them, and they spent money like people who had no thought of the future. They were intent on grasping any joy they could find in the present, because they had no assurance that they would still be alive the next week.

The lives of the people in Jerusalem when Jesus was born were similar, in many ways, to the lives of these people in Lebanon. They lived under foreign occupation, ruled by people who didn't understand or sympathize with their religious practices. There had been repeated attempts to seize power from the Romans, but these had been crushed mercilessly. The Roman governors maintained order, so things didn't become chaotic like they were in Lebanon. But the people of Israel hated being ruled by an idolatrous nation, and violence and death were a regular part of their lives, especially the lives of the poorer people (which those in Luke 2 seem to have been).

The thing that stands out when we read this passage in Luke 2, is that these people were full of hope. They were waiting in anticipation on this One who would come to deliver them. Many things had happened over the past centuries to crush their hope. There had been a brief time, under the Maccabeans, when it looked like they had won their independence as a nation again. But it didn't last long, and soon they had once again been conquered. From time to time, their conquerors had committed atrocities in Jerusalem. During this period, Roman rule was very strong and rebellion was crushed immediately.

But the people in Luke 2 are full of hope. Their experience of violence and death and poverty, and the failures of the nation to achieve independence, had not crushed their hopes for the future. They stand out from the people we met in Lebanon, who were intent on grasping whatever joy they could in the present. But they also stand out from some other groups who lived in Palestine during this time. There was a group called the Zealots, who opposed paying taxes to a pagan emperor, and who placed their hopes for the future in armed revolt. The Zealots believed God would enable them to overthrow the idolatrous people who were ruling them, and they actively looked for ways to carry out their mission.

Simeon and Anna, and the others at the Temple on that day, didn't put their hopes in armed rebellion against the Romans. Barclay describes them as the "Quiet in the Land." "They had no dreams of violence and of power and of armies with banners; they believed in a life of constant prayer and quiet watchfulness until God should come. All their lives they waited quietly and patiently upon God" (p. 21). They were full of hope, not because of their own abilities and plans. They were full of hope because they knew God and they trusted Him to intervene and come to their rescue. They weren't just religiously going through the motions of worship; they weren't just following a system of theology or morality. They knew that they were dealing with the living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Because they knew God, their lives were marked by a sense of expectation and anticipation.

Look, first of all, at Luke's description of Simeon in these verses. He "was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him." He was seeking to live in a right relationship with God, submitting himself to God's lordship. That's the general idea behind the words "righteous and devout." J.B. Phillips translates: "He was an upright man, devoted to the service of God." He made it his aim to live in obedience to God's Word. But the Pharisees also sought to do this. Their aim in life was to be obedient to the Law, but there was something lacking in their spirituality. They were proud of their obedience, and they looked down on everyone else. They were so obsessed with their own accomplishments that they weren't attentive to God.

Simeon was obedient, but he didn't celebrate his own obedience. His focus was on God, not on himself. He was "a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel" (The Message). He didn't spend his life looking at himself, saying "Lord, I thank you that I'm not like other people." He lived in anticipation of God's faithfulness to His promises. He was attentive to God. The Holy Spirit was upon him, and he'd been given this special revelation that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Christ. Why would God give him a promise like that? He doesn't seem to have been a religious leader. This is the only time we encounter him in Scripture. We know nothing about his accomplishments. But he was a man who walked with God for a lifetime, "righteous and devout.... waiting for the consolation of Israel." As he walked with God, praying for the good of the nation, God spoke to him and gave him this special promise. Because he was walking with God, he was attentive to God's leading and went into the Temple at just the right time and because the Holy Spirit was upon him, he recognized the child for who he was, when all the leaders of the nation were oblivious. The most important event in the history of the Temple was taking place, and all those who spent their lives ministering in the Temple missed it completely. But Simeon recognized what was happening, because he walked with God and lived in anticipation of His promises.

When Simeon saw the baby, he took him in his arms and praised God. In verse 29, he says that he is now ready to die: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace." The fulfillment of God's promise means that his life here on earth is nearly over. But this doesn't seem to bother him. He's ready to die. His whole life is caught up in what God is doing for His people. He's engrossed in something much bigger than himself, and his life–even in the face of death–overflows with praise and wonder.

In verses 30 & 31, he elaborates: "For my eyes have seen your salvation." We don't know much about Simeon, whether or not he had family members still living, what sorts of things he enjoyed doing, whether he had any unfinished projects. There may have been things he still wanted to accomplish, or people he wanted to spend more time with. But at this point in his life the central thing, the thing that mattered more than anything else, was God and His purposes. Having seen God's salvation, he was ready to let go of everything else. Simeon's emphasis here is not on the great things he's been able to accomplish for God's glory. He's lived a long life and has been faithful; he has a vibrant, lively relationship with God. It seems safe to assume that he's been a blessing to many people over the years. But that's not the thing in focus here. The thing that stands out is his realization of what God is doing. And God is doing something greater than anyone ever could have anticipated. This little child before them is: "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

Simeon's hope for the future is firmly rooted in the past, and it's strongly tied to the community of God's people. It's important for us to take note of this, because our culture is highly individualistic and thinks the past is irrelevant. Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism, said: "A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future" (p. 26). An autonomous individual, with no strong ties to community, and also cut off from the past, can only live for the present. What Lasch observes about our society is also true for individuals. "A denial of the past... proves... to embody the despair of a [person who] cannot face the future." I believe part of the explanation for the superficiality in much of American Christianity is that we've been infected by the excessive individualism of our culture. Too much of our focus is on "Jesus and me," with no sense of being involved in a community that includes all those who call on the name of Jesus Christ, both on earth and in heaven. We've also accepted our culture's opinion about the past and have lost the sense of our great heritage as part of a body that stretches back to the beginning of time. Our picture of the Church is too small, and our worship and prayer are impoverished. Simeon had a strong hope for the future. He'd spent his life "waiting for the consolation of Israel." But his hope was tied to the community of God's people–it was "the consolation of Israel" that he was looking for–and his hope was firmly rooted in God's promises, given hundreds of years before. It wasn't just "what God is doing for me." It was "God is fulfilling His promise to His people, and He's graciously included me."

While all this is going on, Anna approaches them, and she also immediately recognizes what is happening. These aren't the only other people in the Temple. There would have been priests there, carrying on their regular ministry. Joseph and Mary would have dealt with the priests in making offerings to fulfill the requirements of the Law. These were people whose whole life revolved around the Temple and the Law, but we don't hear anything about them. The One who is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament sacrificial system is present. And the priests–all of them–miss the whole thing. And what is even more remarkable, given the status of women at that time–one of the two people who recognizes what is happening at that moment is a woman.

Anna was a widow whose life revolved around worship and prayer. She may have been 84-years-old, as most translations render verse 37, or she may have been a widow for 84 years, making her over 100. In any case, she had been widowed while she was still a young woman. Life for widows was difficult in that culture. But she hadn't grown bitter over the years. Suffering can affect us in two different ways. It can make us bitter and resentful, closed in upon ourselves. Or it can open us up to God with a strong sense of need. The difficulties that Anna had faced early in her life drew her closer to God. Rather than diminishing over the years (as happens when we become bitter), she was known to others as a prophetess, a woman who knew God and spoke in His name. And when this great moment took place, she was attentive to the Spirit and recognized what was happening, even though all the leaders of the nation and Temple were oblivious.

Anna did two things when she came up to them. She gave thanks to God. She was like Simeon. She recognized that the most important thing going on at that moment was not all the great schemes of the political and religious leaders. The most important thing going on was God's work of redemption. She expected Him to fulfill His promises, and she was waiting with anticipation. So the first thing she did was to give thanks to Him for the great things He was doing. The other thing she did was speak about what she saw: she "spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." Notice how these people are described. They're not just people who believe and do the right things. They're people who are waiting expectantly for God's intervention in the lives of His people.

All this happened a long time ago in a completely different culture. What difference does it make for us? Simeon stresses, in his words to Mary in verses 34 & 35, the importance of our response to this child who was being presented in the Temple on that day: "This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy to many others. Thus, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed" (NLT). Those who reject Him do so to their own undoing. Our eternal well-being is tied to the question of how we respond to Jesus Christ. So where are you in relation to Him? Are you submitting to His lordship? Have you given up all hope of saving yourself, of pleasing God through your own efforts? Have you committed your life to Him and cried out to Him for mercy, and are you seeking each day to live in ways that are pleasing to Him? Does the thought of seeing Jesus face to face fill you with joy, or dread? Where are you in relation to Him?

This brief Christmas season is a gift, an opportunity to remember that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that God appeared in our world as a man. Set aside time to spend in His presence, and cultivate an expectant attitude in worship. We're not just going through the motions when we worship Him. We have to do with the Living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Be attentive to what He is doing. We never know when He is going to intervene in an extraordinary way. When that happens, may He find us waiting expectantly.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Is Christ Divided? 1 Corinthians 1:4-17

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA
October 29, 2017

In the Fall of 1986, Annie and I moved into Philadelphia so I could begin my studies at Westminster Theological Seminary. At the time, I was thinking that we would go back overseas after I finished my program, and I really didn't have much interest in pastoral ministry. But I applied for financial aid from our denomination, because we had a strong connection there, and because I was interested in working with their mission organization. In the end, I didn't receive any aid, mainly because of a shortage of funds and because the money was primarily intended for those preparing to become pastors. But in the letter I received, explaining the situation, I found this note: "It would be good to note also that if funds were available the selection of seminary would be problematic to the church. At least there would need to be discussion about the focus of a Reformed seminary (I should say a seminary with a reformed theology) and how that can fit with the Brethren in Christ."

We're living in a divided Church, a Church where we're often more aware of the things that divide us than those things that bind us together in Christ. It's not just that the Brethren in Christ are uncomfortable with Reformed theology (the system of theology associated with John Calvin and his followers); reformed churches are very critical of churches like the Brethren in Christ. When I was worshiping in a Presbyterian church, I used to hear things like, "Arminians believe they can save themselves" (Arminians are those who disagree with the main theological distinctives of Reformed theology). It's not true, of course, but making that kind of statement helped Presbyterians feel more secure about their theological system. The tendency to tell lies about each other is so strong that the only safe place to find out what any particular group of Christians believes is in their own writings.

Divisiveness is nothing new in the Church, and it goes back much further than the 16th century. The church at Corinth seems to have had a particularly strong bent in this direction. Paul probably wrote this letter in the mid-50's, and he's received reports about their divisions: "each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,' or ‘I belong to Apollos,' or ‘I belong to Cephas,' or ‘I belong to Christ'" (v. 12). But the problem didn't end there. Near the end of the same century, Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians: "Why is there strife and angry outbursts and dissension and schisms and conflict among you? Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ? Why do we tear and rip apart the members of Christ, and rebel against our own body, and reach such a level of insanity that we forget that we are members of one another.... Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow. And yet your rebellion still continues!" (46:7, 9). The tensions and divisiveness were still there in Corinth, 40 years or so after Paul wrote this letter.

Divisiveness in the Church is not new, but it is a serious problem. It's not the sort of thing we should get used to, just because it's been around for a long time. I sometimes hear people say things like: "you know, I think denominations are a good thing; they provide outlets for different personalities." I've heard people go so far as to suggest that denominations are God's way of providing churches for all different kinds of people. When we talk like this, we've become too comfortable with our divisions. We've forgotten Jesus' desire for the Church expressed in His prayer in John 17: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (vv. 20-21). Since Jesus' desire is for the Church to be one, we have no business justifying our divisions.

That's why Paul speaks so firmly to the Corinthians. That's why Clement rebukes them 40 years later with such strong words. Division in the Church is a scandal. It's not something we should try to justify. We should be praying for the healing of our divisions, because, as Paul makes clear in these verses, when the Church is divided our witness is crippled. We can't bear witness to the oneness of Christ, because we're no longer one. The condition of the Church contradicts our message. Because we're divided, we can't bear consistent witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, even though in other areas there may be unmistakable signs of grace in our lives. As Clement said to the Corinthians: "Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow."

Notice, first, that God is at work in the church at Corinth. Paul begins by affirming the evidence of God's grace among them. These are not nominal Christians (people who are Christian in name only). Listen to verses 4-9 in The Message: "Every time I think of you – and I think of you often! – I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There's no end to what has happened to you – it's beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think – you don't need a thing, you've got it all! All God's gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that." This is a church with serious, persistent problems, but it's also a church of which Paul can say, "the evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives."

It's easier when we can write people off, when we can say, "oh, look at that; obviously these people are not genuine believers." Sometimes it's true, a person's life is so much in conflict with the message of the gospel that we legitimately doubt whether the person has faith at all. But Eugene Peterson wisely says, in his introduction to 1 Corinthians in The Message: "Conversion to Christ and his ways doesn't automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals." I'm currently reading the "Sword of Honor" trilogy by the Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh. By all accounts he was a very difficult person to be around. Once, at a party, a woman asked him how he, a well-known Catholic convert, could be so rude. She was saying, "you're not much of a witness." He replied: "Madame, were it not for the Faith, I should scarcely be human" (quoted by George Weigel, in Letters to a Young Catholic, p. 102). He wasn't being flippant. He was saying, "you're right, but I'd be a lot worse if I weren't a Christian." He said almost the same thing in a letter to a friend: "I always think to myself: ‘I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith'" (p. 103). For some people, for a variety of reasons, the journey to "impeccable manners and suitable morals" is an especially long one. We can't know how far they've traveled unless we know where they began.

Corinth was a notorious place in the ancient world, and the "people of Corinth had a reputation... as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people" (Peterson, The Message). All these tendencies didn't just go away when they turned to Christ (as becomes clear in reading through this letter). This is a church with very serious problems, problems which had the potential to tear the church apart at the seams. And yet, Paul says to them, "the evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives."

The second thing to notice is that their disunity is connected, in some sense, to their desire to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Their disunity is a spiritual defect, but it's not an indication of spiritual indifference. They've gotten things mixed up, but these are not people who are lukewarm about the Church. These aren't people who say, "I don't care about all that theological stuff; I don't care about the details, all that matters to me is that my needs are met." Self-centered indifference can lead to disunity, but that's not the problem at Corinth. These people care deeply about what is happening in the church. Not only that, they care deeply about being faithful to Jesus Christ; they're people who "eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed."

It's those who care about following Jesus Christ who are more likely to be led astray in one way or another. I remember being startled when I first heard this from A.W. Tozer: "Strange as it may seem, the danger today is greater for the fervent Christian than for the lukewarm and the self-satisfied. The seeker after God's best things is eager to hear anyone who offers a way by which he can obtain them. He longs for some new experience, some elevated view of truth, some operation of the Spirit that will raise him above the dead level of religious mediocrity that he sees all around him, and for this reason he is ready to give a sympathetic ear to the new and the wonderful in religion, particularly if it is presented by someone with an attractive personality and a reputation for superior godliness" (Man: the Dwelling Place of God, p. 119). Those who are lukewarm and self-satisfied can't be bothered with such things. It's those who are hungry for more of God who are in danger. The danger is that we become attached to one particular teacher, or movement, in a way that cuts us off from others in the Church. That's what was happening in Corinth: "‘I'm on Paul's side,' or ‘I'm for Apollos,' or ‘Peter is my man,' or ‘I'm in the Messiah group.'"

The third thing is that, despite the work of God that is going on among them, and despite their concern about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, their divisions are undermining their witness to the truth. Here's The Message again: "I ask you, ‘Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own? Was Paul crucified for you? Was a single one of you baptized in Paul's name?'" Their factions are obscuring the truth that Christ is not divided. Their divisions are contradicting the message of the gospel.

Remember what Jesus said in His prayer. He prayed for the Church to be one, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Our witness is tied to our unity. Our calling is not only to speak about the truth, but to bear witness to the truth in our lives, not only in our personal lives, but in the life of the Church body. That's why our divisions are such a scandal. That's what Clement was talking about when he wrote to the Corinthian church: "Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow."

Division, alienation from others who belong to Jesus Christ, is just the opposite of what God is doing in Christ. His purpose is "to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:10). It's Satan who promotes division. One of the best illustrations of this is C.S. Lewis' description of Hell (in The Great Divorce) as a sprawling, dingy town, where people are constantly squabbling: "As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he's been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he's quarreled so badly that he decides to move....' ‘And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.' ‘That's right. There are. They've been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They're so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There's a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those olds ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That's one of the disappointments. I thought you'd meet interesting historical characters. But you don't: they're too far away'" (pp. 18-20). Alienation from God alienates us from one another. His purpose in redemption is "to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth." Our divisions are a scandal to the world and they're displeasing to God; they're in conflict with our prayers when we say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." God's will is to bring healing in Christ, and the Church is to be a model of unity and healing in this fragmented world.

But the truth is that we live in a divided Church. The Eastern and Western Churches have been in schism for nearly 1,000 years, and the Western Churches have been divided for 500 years. A lot has happened over the centuries to drive us further apart, and within Protestantism new schisms have developed at a truly alarming rate. A few years ago I talked with a friend who'd left his denomination and had joined a group of people he'd discovered on the Internet. These people, he said, were really serious about the faith.

We live in a divided Church, and it's beyond our power to restore unity. But that doesn't mean we should just accept the way things are. Before I close, here are some things that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, can do to promote unity. 1) Speak the truth about each other. Many of our denominational conflicts are complicated by the false things we say about one another. If we don't want to take the trouble to find out what people in other churches really believe, we shouldn't presume to talk about it. We all have some mixture of truth and error in our theological understanding, and in those areas where God's people have had centuries of disagreement, we need to allow people the freedom to think differently than we do. The temptation is to present their ideas in the worst possible light and then to think, "how could anyone believe such things?" We don't achieve anything by telling lies about each other, and we dishonor the name of Christ.

2) Related to the first point, seek to learn from the best people in other denominations. Most of us are unbalanced in some ways, and we can be genuinely helped by people who look at things differently. I first learned how to pray the Scriptures from a Lutheran (who was taught by Benedictine monks). Over the past twenty years, I've received much help from writers on Catholic spirituality. I use the Liturgy of the Hours in my personal devotions, and I listen often to the music of John Michael Talbot, a Franciscan. I once spent a week at his monastery in Arkansas. I've also been helped immensely by Reformed writers. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, more than any one person, formed my idea about what preaching ought to be. J.I. Packer convinced me that theology could help me learn to worship, and Jonathan Edwards has helped me think about how to distinguish between true and false experiences. And some of the most godly people I've met have been Pentecostals. I became a Christian in an Assembly of God church and one of my favorite Bible professors in college was a Pentecostal. The main commentary that I've used in 1 Corinthians is by Gordon Fee, a Pentecostal. Recognizing that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and being willing to learn from one another, can be a great help in our spiritual lives, and it has the added benefit of promoting unity. We're not going to speak harshly against those who've helped us grow closer to Jesus.

3) Remind yourself often that all who follow Jesus Christ will one day be together in His presence. That's one of the things Jesus mentions in His prayer in John 17: "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory" (v. 24). I don't want to act and speak in ways that I'll be ashamed of on that day. When we are there in His presence, all our denominational differences will be irrelevant. Even if it doesn't happen here on earth, in eternity there will be no more denominations. This should help put our differences into perspective.

Together with all God's people scattered throughout the earth in various kinds of churches, we look forward to this time described near the end of the book of Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'" (Revelation 21:1-4). Since we will all be gathered together in God's presence for eternity, let's begin now cultivating a sense of our oneness in Christ. Let's be praying for the healing of our divisions, so that the Church can bear witness, in both word and action, to God's work of gathering up all things in Christ. I don't know about you, but on this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this is what I want to celebrate.