Category: Church (page 1 of 53)

Witness

“The Church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.” ~Karl Barth

The best thing the Church offers the world is to show the world a way of life that can never be accomplished with social coercion or government power. We serve the world by showing it something that it is not. The world doesn’t know any other way to live but by might and threat and competition and violence.

It could use a witness to something else.

We are witnesses to a reality that transcends the limits of this world. The world can’t fix any of the things that really need fixing. What can the world do other than pass tougher laws and build bigger bombs? That’s it.

The Church provides a witness, a light to the world, an imaginative alternative. Loving your neighbor is very different from being a nice guy. The peace that passes all understanding is not even in the same universe as the peace that comes from having your mortgage paid off. Receiving the forgiveness of all our sins is not the same as rationalizing and justifying our failures. The Church is a separate, distinctive community, not to isolate or protect ourselves, but because we can best serve the world by being the Church.

We reject violence and retaliation to help the world see the way of peace. We refuse to threaten or control people to show the world the way of equality and respect. We break down social, racial, and denominational barriers to show the world the sinfulness of its divisions. We let go of our possessions with joy and gladness to expose the world’s idolatrous attachments to money.

“He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.” ~2 Corinthians 5:15

We live for the risen and reigning Christ Jesus. His vision for the world is our vision for the world. His ways are our ways. What he says goes. As the Church, we see things the way they really are: Jesus is Lord. And when we say “Jesus is Lord,” we’re also saying “Caesar is not.” You can’t serve two masters. You’re either going to love one and hate the other or despise one and be devoted to the other.  We know you can’t have both. So there are moral consequences and political ramifications for a people who define reality as the last being first and the first being last. In our economy, the poor and hungry and sick are the most blessed. In our view, as soon as you try to save your life, you’ve lost it. We take the side of the powerless over the powerful because Jesus views people differently than Pilate does. We’re living for the new heavens and earth where the blind see, the deaf hear, and all the outcasts are coming to the feast!

And that kind of witness is not always practical and it’s not always safe. That kind of message might wreck somebody. It’s dangerous. It might turn something upside down. “Jesus is Lord” means we’re on a trip through the back of the wardrobe, we’re into a different world, a totally different reality that requires a completely different way to live.

The world needs to see and experience the Gospel vision in us. Who else is loving enemies and forgiving murderers and giving away possessions and saying “no” to violence and pre-marital sex and saying “yes” to suffering and sacrifice for the sake of others? The world needs to see that from us. How else will they even begin to imagine it?

We’re not asking the question:  Is what we’re doing effective or practical? Is what we’re teaching offensive? Are the things we’re advocating acceptable? No, our question is: Are the things we’re doing and teaching and advocating true to the fact that Jesus is Lord?

“Let God be true and everybody else a liar.” ~Romans 3:4

The New Testament refers to the Church as saints, the people of God, the temple of the Lord, the household of faith, and about 85 other really high and lofty descriptive words and phrases. That seems very generous on the Bible’s part. The truth is, we have good days and bad days in the Church. We have good decades and bad decades. Actually, the Church has good centuries and bad centuries. We know that. We don’t claim to be right about everything all the time. We’re not immune to sin. We don’t know it all and we don’t have everything figured out. But one of the many things that’s right about the Church is that, by the grace of God, we are a community of faith that exists and acts in Christ. We are the alternative society that sees the world and responds to it differently. And that Christian witness matters.

Peace,

Allan

Church People: Part 3

“A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for itself. They are disembodied entities. They are heard and learned and apprehended and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears and hearts but living people who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ours is an incarnational faith, not a disembodied abstraction. That’s how our God works in us and through us for the sake of the world. People don’t get agitated over what they can’t see. People don’t risk their lives for invisible concepts. Only a visible flesh-and-blood people church works, because salvation is not a one-time, single event. Salvation is not just having your name moved from the “unsaved” column to the Book of Life when you’re baptized. Salvation is restoration, reconciliation, transformation, and healing. Yes, it starts by being united to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it continues — in fits and starts, off and on, usually slowly, but surely — in the Church. By looking at each other across the table during the communion meal and discerning the body. By learning how to worship and serve together. By practicing love and mercy together. By forgiving others and receiving that forgiveness. By experiencing acceptance and belonging.

You can’t get that from an ideal concept or an abstract theology. You can only feel that and experience that together in a broken and messy church-people church.

So when we stand together and recite the two-thousand-year-old words of the Apostles’ Creed, we can say we believe in the holy, universal Church. We believe that in this place, in this assembly, God is at work. We don’t believe in the Church; the Church is not the object of our faith. But we do believe that in this congregation, whenever we come together, the Holy Spirit’s saving, sanctifying, transforming work is taking place.

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up one part, but of many… In fact, God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be… Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” ~1 Corinthians 12

Our Father brought the Church into the world the same way he brought our Savior into the world: by a miracle. The miracle of the Church is every bit as miraculous as the birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on Mary in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Thirty-something years later, that same Holy Spirit of God descended upon 120 men and women praying in an upper room in Jerusalem. Mary was with them. The first Holy Spirit conception gave us Jesus as a person. The second Holy Spirit conception gave us the Church, Jesus as a people.

It was a miracle that didn’t look that grand or important. God was working in and through the powerless, the vulnerable, the weak. Not very different from any random congregation you might look up today. Just like your church. And mine. A group of people who are not wise by human standards, not influential, not of noble birth; just weak and lowly flesh-and-blood people.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen!” ~Ephesians 3:20-21

Peace,

Allan

Church People: Part 2

Our Lord Jesus is a flesh-and-blood person. That’s the beauty and the glory of our salvation, that our God didn’t just come to us, he became one of us. This is God’s salvation plan, that he would put on our flesh-and-blood.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ~John 1:1, 14

What’s the covenant God made with us? From Genesis through Revelation, from the Law and Prophets and Psalms through the Gospels and Letters, God says it dozens of times, the same promise over and over: “I will live with you, I will walk among you, I will make my dwelling with you; you will be my people and I will be your God.” That’s the covenant.

And when Jesus comes, it’s the messy particularity of it that’s so striking. As you read the Gospels, you can almost taste the dust. You can smell the animals. You can hear the people arguing. Jesus is not so much about inspiring concepts and theological abstractions, he’s about fishing nets and mustard seeds and coins and lepers and spit mixed with dirt and sheep and synagogues and sermons and suppers and tears and frustrations and heartaches and forgiveness. The flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus as a real human person is in your face!

And it’s a beautiful and magnificent thing. We praise God because he became one with us, he became one of us, in Jesus Christ. Our eternal salvation is grounded in the fact that Jesus is a flesh-and-blood person, that he experienced everything we experience, that he knows us intimately and he fully understands everything we go through because he went through it, too. It’s awesome and mysterious and so amazingly glorious! What other God would do this? Jesus the Christ, the promised holy One of God, is a flesh-and-blood person!

So, of course, his Body, the Church, is a flesh-and-blood people.

Our God has always called people. He always calls his people to be people — certainly more than just people, but not something other than people.

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God!” ~1 Peter 2:9-10

Just like individuals, I think churches long to throw off their flesh-and-blood natures and soar like Superman. Or super-saints. But that’s a childish wish and it’s not going to happen. When people complain about the Church being too preoccupied with money or buildings or doctrines or prestige, when people gripe about the Church being closed-minded or exclusive or lazy or boring, they’re usually revealing their discomfort that the Church is, indeed, a body.

Bodies sweat and get sick, they produce weird smells and require varying levels of maintenance. That’s the Church.

Some churches are the bodies of infants — they’re crawling and stumbling and falling down and uncoordinated, but so full of potential. Other churches are like the bodies of teenagers — they’re full of muscle and energy and they’re tripping over each other in their enthusiasm to save the world with no appreciation for how difficult that really is. Some churches are really old bodies — they have a distinguished heritage and some really great memories, but they’re about ready to keel over. For better or worse, whatever kind of body we encounter, this is the Body of Christ. This is the form our risen and reigning Lord has chosen to be present in the world.

And it never meets our high expectations. We can be disappointed by the Church. Embarrassed.

But the world being what it is and we being who we are, we are not going to arrive this side of glory. We’re still human pilgrims doing our best to live out the love of God in Christ. And falling way short. But the Church is always more than it appears to be. It’s not another club or social organization. The Church is a chosen people, a holy nation selected by a holy God. What can look like a failing, declining institution for religious folks is, in truth, nothing other than the very Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, united as one with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit right now today and forever!

And it’s real. It’s physical and tangible and flesh-and-blood visible. And real.

God’s Church does not work as an abstract ideal. It’s not a theological concept. It’s intended by God to be visible and authentic and real, warts and all.

Peace,

Allan

Church People

 

Church people are one of the Church’s biggest problems. Church people seem to be what’s wrong with Church. Church people can be an obstruction to the Gospel, a hindrance, an obstacle. The 18th century poet Robert Southey famously wrote, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride.” In William Willimon’s words, “Jesus has many admirers who feel like he married beneath his station.” You and I know folks who say “Yes” to Jesus but “No” to the Church. They claim to be spiritual, but not religious. And Church people appear to be the reason.

Church people are not perfect. We don’t look like saints are supposed to look. We don’t always act redeemed or restored. In fact, Church people are mostly a mess. But the Bible recognizes that. Nobody knows Church people better than Paul. And in 1 Corinthians, he straight up calls it out.

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not…” ~1 Corinthians 1:26-29

That doesn’t make church easy. Paul spends most of his time dealing with Church problems caused by Church people. He’s putting out fires for the elders at the church in Corinth. He’s rebuking a sectarian element at the church in Galatia. He’s encouraging the discouraged Christians at the church in Philippi. He’s trying to bring together the bickering factions at the church in Ephesus. The greatest challenge in following Jesus is his Body, the Church. So a lot of people want to follow Jesus in the safety of their own living rooms with a choir and a preacher on TV. They’d rather worship from a campsite in the canyon or a cabin the mountains or in the privacy of their own backyard.

Church people are an obstruction. That shouldn’t surprise us because our Lord Jesus is a stumbling block! Jesus himself is a problem!

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” ~1 Corinthians 1:22-23

It is a shocking and glorious thing that God Almighty loves us so much that he refused to stay above us or beyond us but came to this earth in our Lord Jesus. He came to be with us in our problems. He jumped right into the middle of our problems. But the way he came is a problem. We’re all ready for God to be the King. We’re ready for Jesus to be Lord of all. Hosanna in the highest! We’re at the front of the parade! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! But the way he comes is a problem.

Kings aren’t born to unmarried peasants in a stable in Bethlehem. Kings aren’t raised as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth. Remember Nathanael? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Kings don’t eat with sinners. They don’t hang out with tax collectors who work for the occupying enemy forces. The Messiah doesn’t break the Sabbath traditions. The Savior from God doesn’t refuse to raise an army, he doesn’t allow himself to be insulted and beaten without fighting back, and he certainly doesn’t die a criminal’s death on a cross.

That’s a problem. An obstruction. A stumbling block.

Several times over the first 300 years of the Church, different groups of Christians were tempted to fall into what’s called Docetism, the idea that Jesus wasn’t really human. He was 100% divine, he was 100% God, and he was zero-percent human. He only appeared to be human. Docetism is from a Greek word that means “to appear” or “to seem.” They thought they were doing Jesus a great honor by this teaching. By saying that Jesus was not flesh-and-blood, they thought they were making him more holy and divine. But really what they were doing was making Jesus more safe. More sanitary. Sterile. If he’s just a disembodied, ethereal spirit, he’s almost irrelevant. Jesus is not so disturbing or challenging if he’s just a being from outer space.

And if you’re struggling with the Incarnation, how much more are you going to struggle with the Church? You’ll admire Christ and you’ll find him attractive and inspiring, but you’ll really be turned off by his Body. The idea of Christ is fine. But the fleshly reality is repulsive.

And you’ll argue that when Jesus called people to follow him, he had something else in mind other than the Church. Something spiritual and pure. Non-corporate. Non-institutional. Not the Church the way we experience it today. Can anything good come out of 1401 South Monroe?  Or wherever your church is located?

The truth is our Lord Jesus is a flesh-and-blood person. And his Church, his Body, is a flesh-and-blood people. That’s the beauty and the glory of our salvation. And I’ll fill that out a little more in this space tomorrow. This is a two-parter.

Peace,

Allan

Salvation in Church

While studying for this Sunday’s sermon on the incarnational nature of Christ’s Church, I came across an old blog post by William Willimon. I’m probably going to use these last two paragraphs:

The night I was ordained,  a bishop laid hands on my head, repeating the ancient words of the Ordinal, “Never forget that the ones to whom you are called to minister are the ones for whom he died.”

There I was, wondering, “Will the church appreciate my superior training? Will I get an all-electric parsonage?” And there was the church, once again forcing me to be a Chalcedonian Christian, once again forcing me to believe in the blessed Incarnation, once again telling me, “The often disheartening, sometimes disappointing ones I’m making you fortunate enough to serve, are the ones for whom I died. This is my idea of salvation. Don’t mess it up.”

Peace,

Allan

Life, Light, and Love

“What is good for us always comes screened by three unequivocal words: life, light, love. These are the same words which indicate the Person of the Father, the Person of the Son, and the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Defending life, witnessing light, living out love — these remain forever. They are the specific duty of anyone who calls upon God, following Christ’s unmistakable example.

An assembly where people do not love each other, where they accuse each other, where there is rancor or hatred, cannot call itself prophetic.

A person who keeps silent about the truth, who hides the light, is not a prophet.

A people which kills, which deteriorates the quality of life, which suffocates the poor, which is not free, is not a prophetic people.

It is not easy to prophesy; it is terribly costly. It has to be drawn from the silence of God, and there is need to swim against the stream, need to pray at length, need to be without fear.”

~ from The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto

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