Proof in the Pudding

Reading some comments to an article written by Rachel Held Evans for CNN’s Religion Blog once again reminded me of something, something I believe that, unfortunately, much of the church in America has forgotten over the years.

The comment spoke of this person’s position that religion was created for one sole purpose: to explain the unexplained since science had yet to catch up.  But now that science has really grown, the need for religion has been reduced or even eliminated.

I truly understand the thinking. 

Here’s why.  Much of what has been communicated as Christianity has been nothing more than a philosophy, a moral one at that based upon the Bible.  That’s it.  For much of the church, it has been in word, but definitely not in power.

The emphasis has been on believing in Jesus because of what is said; it is a word spoken that is to be believed.  Any need to see anything humanly inexplicable is seen as inferior and true belief.  If you truly believe, the thought goes, you won’t need to see any evidence; someone’s word should be enough.

But that’s not always the case, and I have to admit, with many people, they want to see some “proof in the pudding.”

Jesus even spoke about this very thing.  In John 14:11, Jesus says, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; but if not, believe because of the works themselves.”

Jesus recognized the need for proof.  It is my opinion that if the technological, medical and scientific advances were subtracting from today’s world, our world would be quite similar to that of the first century.  

It is my desire that God’s power flows through His people, His church, in inexplicable ways all the time, ways that cannot be explained by any type of science known to humanity.  

I don’t want people to believe just because I said it was so; I want them to believe because there is something to back up what I said.  

One time, Jesus was in a house so packed with people that no one else could get in.  Four friends had brought a friend who was lame so that he could be healed by Jesus.  In order to get him to Jesus, the friends cut a hole in the roof and lowered him into Jesus’ presence. 

Jesus looked at them, saw their faith, and then said to the lame man, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”  Some of the religious elite were there and muttered to themselves basically saying, “Who does He think He is?  Only God can forgive sins.”  Jesus knew what they were thinking so He decided to show them the proof that He was whom He said He was and that He had the authority to forgive sins.  So, He looked at the man, told him to get up, roll up his mat and walk home.  Jesus healed him. 

You want proof, not just words?  Boom!  There you go.

Words are too often hollow.  I pray that the power of God fills that hollow space and is “in-your-face” evident to those around us.

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Freedom in Christ through God’s grace – the original liberalism?

The thought of this blog post title entered into my mind this morning in the form of a question during a conversation with the Holy Spirit.

As I have been studying and leading my people through Paul’s letter to the believers at Colossae, I have been coming more and more face-to-face with the freedom from human rules, traditions and human-made culture and societal norms that comes with the freedom we have in Christ from those things.

I took time to look up the definitions of both conservative and liberal.  A conservative individual is one “who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in politics.”  A liberal is one who is “open to new behavior and opinions and willing to discard traditional values.”

Paul says to the Colossian believers that through Christ we are no longer under the authority of a human-made set of rules and regulations, even those entrenched in a religious system.  “Do not handle!  Do not taste!  Do not touch!”  Followers of Christ are no longer under the authority of a system of religious rules, regulations and requirements.  

This sounds to me like it falls into the camp of the definition of “liberal.”

Think about what Jesus did.  When he made his entrance upon the earth, the system of what was appropriate behavior in all types of situations was well established.  The religious teachers for many years had forged the religious rules which the people were expected to follow and by which people’s obedience to God was judged.

Jesus went against many of these well-established and long-held requirements.  He healed a man’s hand on the Sabbath.  He picked grain on the Sabbath.  He ate with sinners, in the sinners’ houses no less!  And the list could go on and on.

This sounds to me like it falls into the camp of the definition of “liberal.”

I believe that the true reason they had him killed was not blasphemy; that was just the vehicle by which they were able to carry it out.  No, the true reason they had Jesus killed was because he was challenging many years of “traditional” and “long-held” standards of what it meant to truly obey God.  Jesus was upsetting the established order of things, the status quo.  

This sounds to me like it falls into the camp of the definition of “liberal.”

And because of that, they needed to deal with him.

In our country, a judge who gives a lenient sentence to a convicted criminal is oft-times labeled a liberal judge.  A conservative judge would be one who issues a strong sentence to make sure the criminal learns his/her lesson.  What about Jesus in John 8:1-11?  The woman was caught in adultery, but Jesus did not condemn her nor did he punish her; he showed mercy.  Jesus, the original liberal judge?  Hmmm.

This sounds to me like it falls into the camp of the definition of “liberal.”

In my experience, those of a more conservative/fundamental nature theologically are typically more apt to maintain a list of rules and regulations to which people must adhere and by which people’s level of spiritual maturity is judged.  Many of these rules are even, in some way, supported by the use of Scriptural principle.  

For instance, the type of attire that is truly acceptable at a worship gathering.  The reasoning, which I have heard, is that it is important to dress up for worship because you want to present your best to God.  Therefore, in this setting, coming to worship in anything less than “Sunday dress” is frowned upon and judged as wrong.

When challenged, this value is defended by different Scriptural principles concerning our offering and sacrifice to God among others.  The problem with this is that God doesn’t look on our “wrapping;” He looks upon our heart.  This value has focused totally on the wrong thing because God doesn’t care about it, but when this value is in place, look out if you violate it.

Once again from my experience, being conservative is more concerned about adherence to a system of rules and regulations than about the heart, the reason and motivation behind why something is done.  In many places, Paul talks about this very thing.

Freedom in Christ through God’s grace means that what is truly important is the motivation and reasoning, not the action itself.  This leads certain people to do something that others might think wrong. (think consumption of alcohol, in moderation, as an example here)  

Many know the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23a; how many know the rest of verse 23?  Paul says that “against these things,” (the fruit of the Spirit), “there is no law.”  That means that the expressions of these fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, etc.) cannot be regulated by a system or rules, regulations and requirements, but, rather, people are free to express them in the ways the Spirit leads them to do so.

Once again from my experience, American conservative culture has been either married to or made synonymous with Christianity and God.  From this relationship, norms from the conservative culture have made inroads into churches and been used to establish what is and isn’t appropriate and proper “godly” behavior.

When this reality is questioned, the questioner is deemed “liberal” and shamed, sometimes even having the genuineness of his/her faith called into question because a true person of faith wouldn’t question or challenge these things. 

Well, if the example of Jesus were to be followed, it is actually the person questioning who is more mirroring the actions of Jesus than the one who just accepts.

Freedom in Christ through God’s grace puts the focus where it truly should be – the heart.  And when that heart is displayed in action, it can often go against and even challenge established and traditional values.  Instead of railing against it, this should lead us into a deeper discussion about what it means to be free in Christ and how the relationship we have with God is expressed.

 

God Takes Care of the Relationship, We Take Care of the Fellowship

(The following is something I read today from Brilliant News which is produced by Brilliant Book House and Graham Cooke.  Graham wrote this and I found it quite powerful and enlightening.)
 

“Everything about God is relational. Every single thing He will ever do in your life is relational. Everything.

Relationship with Him is based upon unconditional love. Relationship is possible for us because of the sacrifice of Jesus and in relationship with Him, we stand in all that God is.  In relationship, we stand in His righteousness and we are given the grace to be conformed to God’s image through fellowship.  We get to become like Him. 

God takes care of the relationship, we take care of the fellowship.  Our relationship with God is never in doubt; we belong by issue of blood. The Father has put us into Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit our relationship with Jesus has been established. 

He takes care of the relationship, we take care of the fellowship.  Abiding is the practice of staying in fellowship. 

We don’t do anything to get into the presence of God. That is a gift that comes with salvation. We don’t doanything to get in there, but we must do everything to stay there. That’s our job. The father has put us into Jesus. The work of the Holy Spirit is to enable us to stay in that place, and that abiding is a critical part of being a disciple. There is no consistency and there is no transformation outside of learning the art of dwelling and remaining and enjoying where God has put you.  

The Greek word for “abide” is the word “meno”, and it literally means to stay in a given place of relationship and expectancy. We are on the journey in relationship and fellowship from “Daddy” to “Father” and we are learning the fellowship disciplines of how to become a fully mature son in Christ. 

The Father’s love for us is unconditional therefore our relationship in Him is completely secure. His love is continual and He provides it freely in all of our life challenges. Abiding in relationship with Him however, means never allowing your conscious state to lose its focus on who God is and on what He has provided.

Abiding has two parts. There is an unfolding encounter with God in relationship because though your relationship with God is always secure, it never stays the same.  It always increases and abounds! That’s why you can’t stop at salvation…You can’t know God in a single act of coming to Him. You can step across the threshold but then you have got to explore that whole territory. Our relationship with God is always unfolding, is always becoming more. We are always realizing more of who He is and more of who we are in Him.  

Abiding is also an ongoing experience of God infellowship.  Every single issue and situation of your life is a fellowship one. You can fellowship with God ineverything. Hurt, wounded, betrayed, or content, in every single situation of your life fellowship is available. 

I like the way God thinks. He makes everything relational, and therefore enjoyable, because of who Heis. The experience of encountering God’s love is attached to our relationship in Christ. You have a series of encounters with God ahead of you and each one will open you up to ongoing experiences of fellowship and intimacy with God in that area… Enjoy!”

Graham Cooke

I find an irony in this

In my continued study for this Sunday’s sermon from Colossians 2:8-23, I have realized something that I have found to be ironic.

Over the course of the last few years, in a few states (typically in the southern region of the country), there has either been legislation proposed or ballot measures that stated that Sharia Law, the religious code of Islam, would be banned from being used to shape legislation and such.

Here’s the irony.  The groups which are behind these pieces of legislation and ballot measures typically have many who are of a more conservative Christian background.  They don’t want the religious code of another faith dictating what can or cannot be done in society.  But isn’t that exactly what has occurred throughout the history of this country, but not because of Sharia Law, but because of Christian “rules” or “code of behavior”?

For example, for many years it was taught and pervasive in this country that certain activities were not to occur on Sunday.  Why?  Because Sunday was the “Christian Sabbath” and there were rules (man-made albeit wrapped in “biblical” support) about what could be done on that day.

How much controversy was created when stores in this country decided to stay open on Sunday when before they would stay closed because that was the cultural standard based upon Sunday being the “Christian Sabbath?”

I remember while in college (a more conservative Christian college) that we were told that we should refrain from shopping on Sundays and, if possible, refrain from working at a job as well because these were activities that were not to occur on Sunday, the “Christian Sabbath.”  (I must admit I found it contradictory and hypocritical that, even though the college had this stance, they required students to work in the dining hall on Sundays so the student body could eat.)

There were other activities that were frowned upon on the “Christian Sabbath.”  Faculty members of another local seminary in the city where I went to seminary were friends with my seminary advisor.  Together, they would take a yearly trip to Canada to go fishing.  When Dr. Hoch (my advisor) would get ready to go fishing on Sunday, they would tell him that it wasn’t proper to fish on Sundays.  He went anyway.  What’s ironic is that when he returned from fishing, he found his buddies sitting at the kitchen table playing cards, smoking cigars and drinking.  Interesting what is and isn’t allowed.

It’s ironic that these groups don’t want Sharia Law to become influential in what is allow to occur in society, but there isn’t the same concern with practices which are or are not allowed being shaped by what Christian groups judge as appropriate or inappropriate.  This judgment comes concerning food, drink or religious observances of a feast, season or day.  “Therefore, let no one judge you regarding food or drink or in respect of a feast or new moon or a Sabbath.”

It is my belief that Paul taught that “religious code/regulations” and Christianity were in direct opposition with each other.  That is why he says in Colossians 2:20ff, “If you died with Christ from the elements of the world, why, as if alive in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances?  Do not handle nor taste nor touch, (regarding things which are all to perish when used) according to the commandments and teachings of men?

Furthermore, Paul wrote to the Roman believers this in chapter 14: “One believes that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables.  He who eats, let him not despise him who does not eat; and he who does not eat, let him not judge him who eats for God has received him.  Who are you who judge another’s household servant?  To his own master he stands of falls; and he will be made to stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  One judges one day above another; another judges every day alike.  Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.”

This judging and looking down upon others or even thinking less of people for actions in which we would do the opposite isn’t just on a large-scale level; it’s also on a small-scale level.

In my current congregation, a common and long-practiced part of worship is the congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the conclusion of the pastoral prayer.  I know there are at least a few who do not participate in saying this because, for them, and they are persuaded in their mind of this, this weekly repetition is meaningless.  So they do not recite it. 

I know of one instance when a person who does recite it criticized one who did not.  That criticism is wrong and sinful, being directly against Paul’s teaching from Romans 14 and Colossians 2.  One is fully persuaded in his/her mind one way; another is persuaded the opposite way.  And that’s fine.  For either to criticize the other is wrong and is in danger of starting down the slippery slope toward making Christianity into nothing more than a religion with a code of conduct, rules and regulations.

μὴ γένοιτο (KJV – God forbid!).  Actual translation: May it never be so.

Out of the Shadow of Religion

Currently, I am doing a sermon series through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers located in and around the city of Colossae.  This coming Sunday the passage being addressed in located in chapter 2, verses 8-23.  I have really enjoyed translating it from the Greek through which I have been, I think, going deeper into Paul’s mind as he wrote to these believers and the situation(s) they were facing.

Paul, in this letter, is really emphasizing the supremacy of Christ but there is more that he is emphasizing and it especially comes out in this passage from chapter 2 – freedom.  These followers of Jesus were being bombarded by teachers who were telling them that it was necessary to follow this rule or that rule or a list of rules.  There were restrictions and requirements to which these teachers were telling these believers they needed to adhere.

Additionally, these restrictions and requirements came from a secret cache of knowledge which only the teachers possessed.  That meant that, in order for these believers to be able to truly follow Christ, they needed to come to and be dependent upon these teachers to do so.

What I just described is not grace but religion.  Religion is humanity’s creation of rules and restrictions and requirements in order to gain acceptance by God.  It is also used as a measuring stick of a person’s spiritual maturity.  Unfortunately, just like the situation Paul was addressing almost 2000 years ago, there are those who constantly are making Christianity (which is GRACE, not a religion) into a religion.

I find it interesting how Paul connects what these “teachers” are doing with the “elements” of this world.  These are the lists of rules, regulations and requirements to which people are supposed to adhere to be truly “spiritual.”  In verse 16 Paul says, “Let no one judge you regarding food or drink or in respect of a feast or a new moon or a Sabbath, which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is Christ.”  

The Greek word for shadow is directly related to the word for body; it is a variant.  The idea is that the shadow looks real, is shaped very similar to the actual and real body, but it is empty.  That’s the reason why Paul says in verse 23 that these “things indeed have a reputation of wisdom in self-imposed piety and mock humility and severe treatment of the body, but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh.”

Since a person with faith in Christ has died with Christ and therefore also died to the elements of the “world system,” a person no longer is under the authority of that system, but the authority of Christ, the Head.  Therefore, a follower is no longer subject to the ordinances of the “world system” such as “Do not handle; do not taste; do not touch.” (verse 22)

But take a look at what many have made Christianity out to be.  It is much like the “world system” of rules, requirements and regulations.  I was taught growing up that consuming any amount or type of alcohol was a sin; alcohol is evil and was not to be touched.  I was taught that playing cards were of the devil. (playing cards were a common pastime in my family of origin)  I was taught that music with any type of beat (rock and roll) was straight from the pit of hell. (I love music with an awesome lead guitar and a driving beat!)  

For every one of these teachings, there were convincing arguments (though wrong).  And these teachings had “a reputation of wisdom in self-imposed piety and mock humility and severe treatment of the body,” but it was only a reputation, nothing more.

The reasoning goes that abstaining from these things would keep me pure and that’s what a truly spiritually mature Christian does.  

This very morning, I read a blog post this morning from a pastor saying that one reason parents should make their children attend Sunday morning worship is because God commanded it; he used the commandment creating the Sabbath as his rationale.  How does this rationale jive with Paul’s words in verses 16 & 17 of this passage as well as his words in Romans 14:5-6a?  I don’t think it does.

If Paul were writing today regarding these types of teachings, I think a letter much like the one he wrote to the Colossian believers would be written.

Are there some believers for whom drinking is a sin?  Yep, but that’s because, due to a variety of reasons, they abuse alcohol and, therefore, should abstain.  But if a person enjoys the fruit of God’s creation and does so in a manner of moderation and thanksgiving, for him/her it is not sin but actually an expression of his/her freedom and connection (read spiritual maturity here) with the Head of the Body.

There are some who would respond with the charge that this type of teaching encourages and allows sin, licentious behavior, to occur.  The key to what Paul is saying is the connection with the Head of the Body – Christ.  As part of the Body, a believer has direct connection with the Head and the control the Head has over every part of the Body.

Just like our head, our brains, control our bodies and our actions, Christ, as Head of His Body (the church), controls His body and its actions.  Having rules and regulations and requirements are an extremely poor substitute for the control of Christ.

Look, because of faith, I have been crucified (killed, dead) with Christ and made dead to the regulations of the “world system” and raised with Him to new life which gives me a direct connection to the control and authority of the Head – Christ. He is the Master, as Paul says in Romans 14, before which I stand or fall.

When Christ was hanging on that cross, God took the “world system” of religion with all of its rules, regulations and requirements and nailed it to the cross forever cancelling its force, bond and authority.  And, while Christ came down from the cross and out of the tomb 3 days later alive, that “world system” remains nailed to that cross never to be removed.  

And grace stepped in and filled the void. So those of faith in Christ are not controlled by any system but by the Head and His direction which is grace.  It is Christ controlling me and all who follow Him that will stop sin from running rampant in my life and the lives of other believers, not some system of lists or rules, regulations and requirements.

I will not be party to any group who wants to get out a  hammer and pull out the nails still holding that system to the cross and thereby tossing grace out of the window.

I have been brought out of the shadow of religion through Christ and I absolutely refuse to step back into that shadow!

Freedom of Religion on July 4, 1776?

Tomorrow, July 4th, 2013 is the 237th anniversary of the Continental Congress approval of the Declaration of Independence.  All over the United States, there will be displays of fireworks and other celebrations of this event which gave rise to what is the United States of America.

The Declaration of Independence lists many reasons why the representatives of the colonies decided to rebel against the British monarchy.  What is absent from that list is freedom of religion.  It does not appear, but, in this country, there are many who believe that one of the founding principles of this country in 1776 was this exact freedom.  I believe history actually shows differently.

Starting with the Puritans, the idea was for their establishment to be “a city on the hill” for Old England.  Oh, sure, the Puritans came to North America because they were persecuted for their theological positions, so they sought religious freedom for themselves.  But what is quite interesting is that they did not grant that freedom for anyone but themselves.

Those who disagreed with the theological and religious positions of the Puritans and their leaders were banned from the colony.  Just ask Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson if the Puritans believed in true religious freedom; they were banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Rhode Island and First Baptist Church of Providence were created.

There is even one American historian, Dr. Alan Bearman, professor of history at Washburn University, who believes that it was never the Puritans intent to permanently stay in New England.  He contends that they wanted to demonstrate the proper relationship between church and state, “the city on the hill” (i.e., what they believed theologically being the beliefs to which the state and all citizens must adhere), and then go back and implement that structure in England.

All through the Colonial period, those who disagreed with the state church were persecuted.  Baptists routinely encountered this type of behavior.  Throughout this period, Catholics were statutorily discriminated against in matters of property and voting.  In Puritan Boston’s early days, Catholics and other “non-Puritans” were anathema and banned from the colony.  Between the years of 1659 and 1661, four Quakers were hanged for returning to Boston and standing up for their beliefs.

Even after the signing of the Declaration of Independence this type of discrimination and lack of religious freedom continued.  In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.  (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/sepchust.htm)

Virginia was an exception.  Through the leadership of John Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Virginia’s state constitution, in 1776, “exempted dissenters like the Baptists from paying taxes to support the Anglican clergy. That did not go far enough to satisfy Jefferson, so in 1779 he presented a bill to the state legislature guaranteeing full religious liberty to all Virginians—not merely tax exemptions to non-Anglicans—only to meet with resistance from those who deemed his measure too radical. Among them was Patrick Henry, who countered by proposing a “general assessment” on all citizens to support Christianity itself as the established religion of Virginia.” 

Furthermore, Madison argued that to promote any religion was outside the proper scope of limited government. Even for Virginia’s government to sponsor all Christian religions, as Henry proposed, would establish a dangerous precedent, for “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” (ibid.)

Even then, it wasn’t until 1786 that Virginia finally passed legislation that, once and for all, ended a state established religion.

Even during the days of debate over the wording of the United States Constitution, there was heated debate over the issue of religious freedom.  One group of “critics of the proposed Constitution warned that abolishing religious tests would allow Jews, Catholics, and Quakers—even “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [Muslims]”—to hold federal office, perhaps even to dominate the new national government. And many evangelical religious leaders, like the group of Presbyterian elders who took their concerns to George Washington in 1789, objected that the Constitution failed to acknowledge ‘the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.’” (ibid.)

So, history shows that the prominent view of the idea of religious freedom was for those who came and established themselves as the leaders of the colony/state; all others must adhere to their view or experience detrimental consequences ranging from forced financial payments to punitive legislation all the way to possible incarceration such as some of my Baptist forebears experienced.

It was not until the U.S. Constitution was ratified that this tide began to truly turn, but even then, it took many years for it to be totally eradicated, at least legislatively, if not in the mindset of all the citizenry.

So, while you are celebrating the day which is considered the birthday of this country called the United States of America, remember that the idea of freedom of religion was not what it is today.  And, even though the text of the Declaration of Independence mentions rights granted by the Creator, in practice these rights did not include true freedom of religion except for those who agreed with the established church.

I believe it imperative that we do not go back to the mindset and view of “religious freedom” as found in during the colonial period and early years of this country though I do believe there are those alive today who would like to see their brand of Christianity be the controlling force on our government today.

May these find no success in that endeavor.