God at Work: Sacrament

1 Corinthians, Baptism, Church, Hebrews, Holy Spirit, Lord's Supper, Romans, Worship No Comments »

Sacrament: A physical symbol that acts as a means of God’s grace by which we participate in a spiritual reality.

This Sunday at Central we’re beginning a 13-weeks Bible class series on the sacraments of baptism, communion, and the Christian assembly. Our intent is to move more toward viewing these special moments together as places and times when our God is redemptively present and seriously at work. We want to learn how to focus more on what God is doing and less on what we are doing in these practices. And the word “sacrament” is significant for our understanding and growth.

The definition above is my own version of how the Church has understood the term for centuries. Let’s explain it using each of the divine ordinances.

Baptism – The physical symbol is the water. The water is real, it’s tangible. You can see it, you can feel it, you can experience it. It’ll ruin your phone, it’ll go up your nose — it’s real. But the water also represents a reality beyond itself. It points to something bigger. The water symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. What makes baptism a sacrament is that, by God’s Spirit, we actually participate in the reality it symbolizes. In baptism, we are buried and raised with Christ Jesus. Baptism connects us to Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” ~Romans 6:3-5

Lord’s Supper – The physical symbol is the bread and the cup, the cracker and the juice. Those are concrete, real things, physical things. You can smell the juice, you can crunch the cracker; it gets stuck in your teeth, it can stain your slacks — it’s real. But the meal represents Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples. What makes the communion meal a sacrament is that, by God’s Holy Spirit, we actually are participating in the thing it represents. We are literally eating with the Lord. Somehow, mysteriously, yes, he meets us at the table and eats with us.

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” ~1 Corinthians 10:16

Christian Assembly – The physical symbol is the people in the room. It’s us. Real men, women, and children, wearing clothes, laughing, singing, whispering, chewing gum, praying; babies crying and people sneezing — it’s real. And it symbolizes something bigger. It represents the heavenly assembly around the throne of God. By God’s Spirit, we join that heavenly chorus — we are actually participating in what we can’t see yet. We are singing and praying with all the saints of all time in heaven, in the eternal presence of God. That’s what makes the Sunday morning worship gathering a sacrament.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

God is present with us, saving us, nourishing us, changing us. When we view these three ordinances as merely commands to obey, we’ll focus on what we are doing. When we understand them as sacraments, we’re better able to focus on what God is doing.

Peace,

Allan

God at Work: Ordinance

Baptism, Lord's Supper, Worship No Comments »

I was eleven-years-old when I was baptized on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1977 at the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ. As soon as the sermon was over and the congregation began singing “Trust and Obey,” I stepped out into the aisle from the third row where my family always sat and made my way to the front. It was a short walk — like four steps. After the song was over, my dad told the church how proud he was of me and he took my confession.

“Allan, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”

“Yes, I do.”

We both walked behind the stage into a dressing room where I put on a weird little nightgown thing, my dad shoved me into the water, and I was baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When I came up out of the water, the church began singing “Happy, Happy, Happy.” We didn’t clap after baptisms back then, our congregation always sang this awful song. It’s a horrible song — I hope you don’t know it. As my dad and I were walking up the steps out of the water, he looked at me and asked, “How do you feel?”

I replied, “I feel perfect.”

And I did.

The following Sunday I took my first communion. And I felt like everybody was watching me. My mom and dad, my sisters and my grandmother on that third pew, my uncle and aunt and cousins behind us — it was a big deal. And when that tray came down the row, I pinched off the tiniest little bit of cracker that was humanly possible — I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t know what I was doing — and I drank that little sip of grape juice. I kept my head down, didn’t make eye contact with anybody and thought about Jesus. Shhhhhhh. We’re thinking about Jesus.

And I felt like a Christian. I felt like I belonged. The Lord’s Supper is what you do when you’re a Christian. Every single Sunday. That’s why you go to church even when you’re out of town on vacation: so you can take communion. That’s why if you have to leave church early for work or a special event, you only leave after communion. In fact, communion is such a big deal, if you miss Sunday morning, we’ve left it prepared for you in a little side-room on Sunday night where you and four or five others can sit down and eat it while three deacons stand there and watch you.

But we never missed worship. Every time the doors were open — that was us. We were right there on that third pew worshiping. All five acts of worship: singing, praying, preaching, Lord’s Supper… and… announcements? I can’t remember. Do not forsake the assembly. It doesn’t matter if the Cowboys are in the Super Bowl or if CBS is showing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer back to back, we’re going to church.

Because that’s what Christians do. Those are the ordinances, the commands. Especially those big three: baptism, communion, and the worship assembly. We do those things. And we go to great lengths to make sure we do those things in the right way at the proper time using the correct words. And it didn’t take long for me to learn how to do exactly what we do.

But I’m not sure I ever seriously considered what God is doing when we are doing what he wants us to do. Where is God? How is he involved? What is God doing?

Oh, I suppose if you had asked me back then I would have come up with an answer.

What was God doing when you were baptized? Well, he was watching from above. And when I came up out of the water, he forgave all my sins and wrote my name into his book of life. He saved me. He checked the box next to my name. My obedience pleases God.

What’s God doing when you eat the Lord’s Supper? Well, he’s with us, he’s present in a vague and spiritual way. And he’s watching me. He’s happy that I’m thinking about his Son. My sincerity pleases God.

What about during worship? When Christians get together to sing and pray and read the Bible, where’s God then? Well, he’s listening to our praise, he’s soaking up the songs. He’s the audience of one. My performance pleases him.

We probably think individually about these three things: baptism, communion, and the assembly. I think that’s our tendency. This is about God and me. It’s personal. But they are all three actually communal in nature. They have more to do with the community. We also think and talk about these things primarily as commands we obey, ordinances we are obligated to fulfill. But they are all three more fundamentally about what God is doing. These are all communal moments, these all happen when we’re together. But, more than that, these are moments when God meets us, when he is especially present with us and works on us, changing us more into the image of Christ.

This Sunday our adult Bible classes at Central are launching into a thirteen-week series on these divine ordinances. What we’re trying to do as a church is move more toward viewing these three areas as encounters with God and less as things we’re just commanded to do. We want to participate in these things and experience these things more and more as means of grace, or avenues by which God meets us and blesses us with spiritual gifts. The theological term is sacrament or sacramental.

Now, the word “sacrament” can mess some of us up if we don’t slow down and talk about it. The word “sacrament” carries some baggage with some of us. We think it’s a Roman Catholic thing or it’s about magic words or secret powers. It doesn’t mean any of those things. But the term is vitally significant for our understanding of what’s happening during baptism, communion, and the assembly.

Because “ordinance” means we do something. “Sacrament” means God does something. “Sacrament” means God is at work.

We’ll define “sacrament” and flesh out the practical implications for us in this space tomorrow. Stay with me.

Peace,

Allan

What If It Happened Here?

Christ & Culture, Church, Discipleship, Jesus, John, Luke No Comments »

“My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place.” ~Jesus

The headline on the front page of today’s Amarillo Globe-News asks the question in bold print: “What if it happened here?” with the subheading: “Local churches eye security measures in wake of massacre.”

The paper quotes a couple of local pastors who are considering changes to their church’s security plans in light of last Sunday’s horrible shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. One of the pastors is hiring an armed Amarillo Police Department officer to be present during their worship services, claiming it will put the members of his church “at ease to see a uniformed officer” and that he wants his people to “feel safe and secure.” This pastor is also considering hosting an active shooter seminar for his congregation. Another pastor expresses the need for an active shooter seminar at his church “as soon as possible.” All of the pastors in the story have some type of armed security personnel in and around their buildings during services. We do, too, here at Central.

The headline asks a question the story never answers: What if it happened here? Maybe the reporter never asked the question and the headline writer was having a rough night. It’s a good question. What happens in your church building if — God forbid — an active shooter begins opening fire? What happens at Central?

If the Church of Jesus is established by God to serve as a light to the world, as an alternative community in contrast to the values and priorities of society, as a scandalous counter to the ways and means of our culture, then we would all keep our guns in our holsters. If God’s Church is established to witness to the “other” way, to proclaim and live out the teachings of Jesus, the true interpreter of God’s Law, then the shooter would not be shot — at least not by a Christian.

Which serves as the more powerful witness to the world: a Christian blowing away a non-Christian in the middle of a worship assembly inside a church building in the name of self defense or Christians praying for and forgiving the one who is shooting them, refusing to kill him, asking God to, instead, have mercy on him, in the name of Jesus? I know the world will laud the Christian who kills in the name of self defense. That same world will lament the misguided Christian sap who refused to meet violence with violence in the name of Jesus.

What if it happened here?

Nearly two years ago The Christian Chronicle published a front page story about church shootings, quoting a dozen ministers from a dozen different congregations in several states who believe and, apparently, teach that carrying a gun and being prepared to use it against another human being is a good thing to do.

Those preachers were asked the question, “What if it happened here?” A minister in Florida said, “walking in with the intent to harm our congregation would be like walking in to harm someone at an NRA rally or gun show.” A minister of another church told the Chronicle that lots of people in his congregation are packing and “someone would be sorry to try anything here.” Some of the preachers interviewed even attempted to say that shooting a criminal inside the church building is the “Christian” thing to do. One preacher from Houston said, “There is a world of difference in being ready to die for your faith than to die at the hands of a crazy man simply because he’s crazy. I believe God would permit me to protect myself and my family in cases such as that.”

A minister in Kentucky went so far as to claim that Christians are required to shoot when he said, “We believe theologically we have an obligation to protect and defend our church membership, especially children, against a stranger or angry member who was to come in and begin shooting.”

A preacher in Alabama who admits to bringing his own Ruger .380 to the church building on Sundays invoked the name of Jesus in justifying the use of deadly force by a Christian: “I do not believe that Jesus — or even the old law — taught members to cower in the face of danger. It was Jesus who told his apostles to take a sword in Luke 22.”

OK. Stop right there.

Two things.

One, you cannot use the name of our Lord to justify the killing of anyone under any circumstances. Ever. Yes, Jesus moves to protect those under attack, not by killing the attacker but by stepping in front of the bullet. And he would forgive the attacker and pray for him while he was dying. I’m always surprised to hear Christians say, “Jesus would not allow himself to be a victim.” Actually, our Lord willingly left his home in glory, put all of his trust in the One who judges justly, and purposefully submitted to being the worst kind of victim. He blessed those who attacked him, he loved those who hated him, he forgave those who killed him, and never lifted a finger against any of them in self defense. I’ve heard other Christians acknowledge that truth about our Lord and then add, “Well, Jesus wouldn’t shoot anybody, but I would.” That actually makes you, by definition, not a Christian.

Two, Jesus’ words in Luke 22 do not authorize the use of gun violence in any way. Jesus is telling his disciples that things have changed. The first time they went out, they were all welcomed with goodwill and hospitality. But now, when they are scattered, they are going to face opposition. They’re going to be ridiculed, rejected, and maybe even killed. Now, Jesus says, you’re on your own out there. Don’t count on other people to help you. You’re going to need a purse, a bag, a sword, whatever. He’s speaking figuratively. He doesn’t discount in this moment every word out of his mouth for the past three-plus years against violence. He’s not saying the opposite now of his every teaching against violence. He’s speaking symbolically. How do we know? Because when the disciples reply, “Look, Lord, we’ve got two swords right here,” Jesus rebukes them. “Enough, already! Stop!”

Yes, Jesus says, you’re going to face intense opposition to me and my message, your very lives are going to be endangered. But you don’t respond with self-defense and violence. Enough! You’re missing the point! Jesus will have nothing to do with swords, even for defense. How do we know? Because later in this same chapter, in the very next scene when Jesus is being arrested, one of the disciples asks him, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And Jesus says emphatically, “No!”

One of the Christ-followers uses his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. And Jesus sharply rebukes him. “No more of this! Stop!” And he heals the injured attacker. He ministers to and heals the one who came to harm him. In Luke 22, literal armed resistance as self-defense is exposed as a foolish misunderstanding of Jesus’ message.

Of all the ministers quoted in the Christian Chronicle article, only one expressed a theological and scriptural objection to the use of gun violence by Christians in self-defense. Tyler Jarvis, the student and family minister for the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, Texas, said, “I think that the church should trust in the protection and mercy of God, even if it means not being able to defend against an attacker or intruder. The church ought to be able to extend love and forgiveness to those who wish them harm, even if it costs them their lives in the process.”

There are many reasons Christians in the U.S. believe it’s OK to kill people in self-defense. Culture plays a role, society has something to do with it, fear informs our understandings, and there appears to be a general unwillingness to carefully think things through and reflect. Gun violence is normalized as if there’s no choice. We accept the culture’s position and then approve it for God’s Church. There’s no theological challenge, just an out-of-context proof text.

Since when is showing unconditional mercy and love and grace and forgiveness in the face of danger and death labeled as cowardly and weak? Since when is praying for our enemies and refusing to repay evil for evil and sacrificing self preservation for the sake of the sinner viewed as unrealistic? Our Lord was not cowardly in the Garden of Gethsemane that night. And he wasn’t weak when he willingly submitted to the cruelty of the cross. Neither are Christians who reject the use of violence to get their way. They are courageous and brave, faithful and true.

Christians, leave your guns at home this Sunday. Practice prayer. Practice forgiveness and mercy. Practice discipleship and obedience to The Way. Pray to God that nobody with violent intent ever attacks your church family in the sanctuary. But also pray to God for the courage and strength, should it ever happen, to respond in ways that will honor our Lord, the Prince of Peace.

Peace,

Allan

For Preachers Only

Preaching No Comments »

I thank God for the annual Preachers Initiative at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas. I thank God that Pat Bills and the people at Hope Network limit this yearly experience to preachers only — no elders, no youth ministers, no executive pastors. I need these three days with my fellow proclaimers of the Gospel. The Initiative soothes my soul, re-ignites my spirit, and reminds me why we do this very hard thing we all do.

It’s a unique setting there at Highland Oaks the first week of November. It’s preachers only. And it’s desperately needed by all of us — the ones who freely admit it and the ones who won’t.

Because there are some jokes only preachers get.
There are some experiences only preachers share.
There are some blessings only preachers receive.
There are  some burdens only preachers carry.
There are some heartaches only preachers understand.
There are some doubts only preachers have.

I needed to hear Chris Seidman remind me why preaching matters. I needed to hear Bryan and Mallory‘s powerful sermons from Matthew 23. I needed to listen as five of my brothers and sisters shared sermon prep strategies and delivery decisions. I needed to be there when John Alan Turner talked to us about Tri-Perspectivalism and the divinely ordained diversity required to faithfully lead a church of God’s people. And, oh brother, did I so need to hear William Willimon. What a blessing and a joy to meet and listen to this faithful teacher of preachers. It was incredibly encouraging and deeply satisfying to hear in person the heart of this great man who gave us Peculiar Speech and The Intrusive Word and Resident Aliens. I needed all of that.

But the main reason I take three days and drive six hours to and from Dallas each year is to spend the time with preachers only.

Thank you, Pat and Liz and Jon and Grady and everybody at Highland Oaks and Hope Network. You bless me. You bless all of God’s preachers.

Peace,

Allan

Float Duty at OC

Delta Gamma Sigma, Valerie No Comments »

Our daughter Valerie surely knows a hundred guys in Edmond who drive pickup trucks. But I got the call last week to pull the Tri-Theta float in Saturday’s Oklahoma Christian University homecoming parade.

Valerie is Theta’s homecoming director — in charge of her club’s float, their window in the student center, and her club’s participation in all the homecoming week activities. The theme had something to do with unity in diversity or love around the world — I’m not certain. All I know is that Theta’s float and window and T-shirts revolved around the country of India. And Valerie and her friends killed it. Theta’s window banner won first place and their Taj Mahal float won second.


According to true Stanglin tradition, there was some controversy with the float that had to be discussed and fixed the morning of the parade. The OC administration took issue with part of the design and Valerie and her crew had to scramble to make it work. A little spray paint in some strategic places took care of the problem to the school’s satisfaction and we hooked it up and took off. We circled the Bible building twice, threw a lot of candy at a bunch of little kids, saw tons of people we knew from a long time ago, and nobody got run over. A tremendous success by any measure.

I’ll also share this picture of the Delta alumni breakfast held earlier that day. Two hours of sausage balls and war stories with guys like Scott Steward, Jeff Hyatt, Dewey Leggett, Paul Russell, Ted Norton, Alfred Branch, and Chris Adair. Mac reminded me of stuff I had forgotten and Paul brought up things I wish he had forgotten. I love seeing the charter members from 1972 sitting in their chairs down front. And I’m still puzzled at how OC President John DeSteiguer keeps making it into our club picture.

God bless Delta and Theta.

Allan

TEXSHAS SHPORTS!

MLB, Stanglin Family, Texas Rangers No Comments »

My brother, Keith, and I went to a lot of Texas Rangers games back in the day. We’re ten years apart — but still shared a room and slept in bunk beds until I moved off to college — so during the best of those times I was 18 or 19 years old and he was eight or nine. We’d jump in my “metallic blue” Nissan Hardbody, grab a couple of Ultimate Cheeseburgers at the Jack in the Box on Buckner Boulevard, and fly down I-30 to old Arlington Stadium.

Parking was free when you could find a spot behind a warehouse on Randol Mill, a game program was a dollar — those really were the good old days — and the bleacher seats were five dollars each. Keith and I would usually wind up in the aluminum rows in left field.

And there was a lot of room out there. The teams were terrible — the Rangers were still ten years away from their first division title and first playoff appearance — and attendance was worse. A lot of the time it felt like there were only a few dozen of us in those outfield bleachers. But we went faithfully, as often as we could. We cheered on Bobby Witt and Charlie Hough, Pete O’Brien and Steve Boooooo-chele. Keith named himself the president of the Chad Krueter fan club and we killed time in the late innings of blowout losses by chanting his name.

One night the Rangers were actually winning. I can’t remember who they played or what night of the week it was, but I do remember there were only twelve of us in the left field stands. And one guy about twenty rows up from us was very, very, very drunk and very, very, very loud. He was about as obnoxious as you can imagine — sloppy drunk — and giving everybody in the zip code a running commentary on everything that was happening in the stadium.

In between the eighth and ninth innings, they started running the out of town results across the scoreboard: Yankees beat the Angels. Twins over the Mariners. Giants down the Cards. Astros won.

The Astros won. I can’t remember who they were playing — I’m certain it didn’t matter. But this drunk behind us took notice. The Astros had won, his Rangers were winning, and he took that opportunity to bellow his Lone Star pride. In the sloppiest, spittiest, slurriest way possible, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Texshas Shports!”

He went on and on — now that I’m writing this I’m afraid it’s probably not as funny as I remember — about the Rangers and Astros and how Texas Sports dominate. No shirt, no shoes, this guy was gross. And he was fired up about his rooting interests in his home state. Cowboys and Oilers, Mavericks and Rockets and Spurs, Rangers and Astros. Everybody’s awesome in Texas and all Texas sports are the best in the history of the universe. “Texshas Shports!”

Last night, at 10:45 pm, my phone lit up with a text from Austin. It was Keith. “Texas Sports.”

Yes, I was rooting for the ‘Stros in their World Series against L.A. The Astros have been my second favorite team for the entirety of my life. It’s always been easy to cheer for Houston. They were in the National League, so no threat to my Rangers. And when they do well it makes Texas look good. It was the same way with the Oilers, they were always my second favorite team. I dreamed of an all-Texas Super Bowl between my Cowboys and Bum’s Oilers, an all-Texas World Series between my Rangers and those rainbow Lastros. Honestly, I’ve got a lot in common with that bum in the Arlington Stadium bleachers.

So, I’m wanting the Astros to win this thing last night, but I’ve got mixed feelings about it today. I’m glad a Texas team upset the heavily favored Dodgers. I secretly felt satisfied that Yu Darvish imploded so historically for L.A. These young Houston ballplayers are fun to watch. How can you not like them? But I’m sick that Houston won a World Series before the Rangers did. I’m still suffering from PTSD relating to 2011. And how do you cheer for a team in the Rangers’ division?

I texted Adam Gray, the long-time Astros fan on our church staff, early this morning: “Congratulations. I wish I knew what it felt like to feel like you felt like last night.”

It looks like the Rangers are in for another three or four year stretch of really bad baseball while the Astros appear poised to contend for several more titles. I have only one consolation today. Texas Sports.

Peace,

Allan