In an article in Time magazine which referenced a study released by the American Bible Society (http://nation.time.com/2014/01/22/godless-cities-in-america/), it was noted, from the study, that the two least “Bible-minded” cities in the United States were Providence, RI and New Bedford, MA.  “The study defines ‘Bible-mindedness’ as a combination of how often respondents read the Bible and how accurate they think the Bible is. ‘Respondents who report reading the bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as “Bible Minded,”‘ says the study’s methodology.”

So, reading the Bible often and believing in its accuracy are deemed as indicators of godliness.

I wonder, how does that gel with Jesus words to the Pharisees and others, who knew the Scriptures backward and forward, who read it often, and who believed vehemently in its accuracy, a belief, by the way, that motivated them to persecute and kill Jesus, from John 5:37-40: “And the Father who sent me, He has testified concerning me.  You have neither heard His voice at any time nor have you seen His form, and you do not have His word abiding in you, for him whom He sent, this one you do not believe.  You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify concerning me.  Yet, you are not willing to come to me that you may have life.”

I’m not saying that being immersed in Scripture isn’t important, because it is.  What I am saying is that this isn’t necessarily an indicator of godliness or truly knowing God.

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These words get me all “twiterpated”

“And I ask not only concerning these, but also concerning all who believe in me through their word, that they all may be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.  And the glory which you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one; I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected into one, that the world may know that you sent me and have loved them just as you have loved me.  Father, concerning that which you have given to me, I desire that where I am they may also be with me, that they may behold my glory, which you have given to me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  Righteous Father, though the world has not known you, yet I have known you, and these have known that you sent me; and I have made your name known to them and will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.” – Jesus from John 17:20-26

I was drawn back to these words of Jesus from his prayer in John 17 as I was continuing my study in Ephesians 1:7-12.  Paul says that because of God causing the limitless riches of his grace to increase or abound to us, he revealed to us his will because of the connection we have through and in Christ with God.

It is this connection of which Jesus speaks in this prayer.  Think about the explosive, radical, and revolutionary implications and direct results of this connection.  Because Jesus is one with the Father, and we are one with Jesus, we are in God.  The glory which the Father gave to Jesus is the same glory that Jesus gave to all those who have believed his message.

Why then, I must ask, do so many who have believed the message concerning Jesus still have a poor view of themselves?  We have been given the SAME glory by Jesus as the Father gave to him.  How we view ourselves is so critical with how we live.  When Jesus said that he gave that same glory to us, he wasn’t saying that we now have the right to lord it over people or have an air of superiority; rather, he’s saying that the nature and character of God present in the glory given to Jesus has been given to us who have believed.  And those characteristics include humility, meekness, and gentleness.

I often think that “glory” is in that group of words that are used often by Christians but their definitions are not well-known.  I define “glory” as “enhancing one’s reputation.”  So, when I glorify God, I am enhancing his reputation by declaring who and what he is – his character and nature.  That is exactly what Jesus has given to all those who have believed the message of the gospel.

Think about the connection created.  Even though God is still other, there is an intimate relationship which has direct results and benefits for us.  Think about the oneness now possible.  Even though God is still other, because of his oneness with Christ, he has allowed us, those who have believed, to enter into and be part of that oneness.  This doesn’t make us divine, but it does elevate us to a different plain, a different realm.

As I was growing up, I remember the “otherness” of God being stressed often and vehemently, usually in response to the teachings of “New Age” spirituality or Far Eastern religions with their mysticism.  I never had a true appreciation of the nature of the connection and unity between the Father, Christ, and those who have believed the gospel because of the nature of the above reaction until I became an adult.  But there is an intimate, an extremely intimate one, connection present for those who believe.  We have received the same glory from Jesus as the Father gave to Jesus.  It gives me goosebumps just considering it.

As a practical application of all this, while there are multiple reasons why people don’t believe the message of Jesus or that God sent Jesus, what must be included in that is that those who have believed haven’t truly demonstrated unity with each other and with Jesus and the Father which Jesus said would show that God had sent Jesus.  This demonstration involves the revealing of the glory of the Father, which was given to Jesus, who in turn gave it to us.  And remember, that glory is the character and nature of God.  

What too often is demonstrated is that God’s nature and character is more in line with how God related to his creation pre-Christ; the way he did under the old covenant.  That way was known as the law, which sin used to bring about death because through it humanity discovered how wretched it truly is but couldn’t do anything about it other than manage it the best way possible – keeping rules and abiding by a strict code of behavior in an attempt to deal with sin.

That didn’t work.  So God did something totally different through Christ which was drawing us into unity with them and giving us his character and nature.  What I truly find sad is that, for all intents and practical purposes, many Christians still operate under some form of the old way.  This is demonstrated by Christian leaders readily pronouncing God’s judgment on people for sin, by which they hope those upon whom the judgment is announced will “come to their senses.”  How well did that work for Israel?  Why does anyone think it will be any different today?  

That’s why God did something totally different.  Instead of it being a “him vs. us” relationship, he draws us into himself through Christ so that it’s now “us.”  That is something to be celebrated, proclaimed, and demonstrated.  This is how we should view ourselves and the identity from which we should live.

May it be so more and more each day, and may, as those around us see the glory the Father gave to Jesus which Jesus, in turn, gave to us and hear about why we have that glory, they be drawn into us which in turn draws them into Jesus which, in turn, draws them into the Father.

Religion is hard; the Gospel is easy

A clergy friend of mine posted the link to an column from the Washington Post about religion.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/commentary-church-shouldnt-be-this-hard/2014/01/07/1d869022-77c0-11e3-a647-a19deaf575b3_story.html

The title intrigued me so I read it.  As I read it, it made me think of what the Spirit has been teaching me over the past 4 years and specifically since September as I have been preaching through Galatians.  This author states a conclusion to which he has come:  “Religion shouldn’t be this hard.”

Now, while I understand what he is saying in the context of the piece, based upon what I have been taught by the Spirit over the last few months, I must disagree with his conclusion.  The opposite is actually true.  Religion IS hard.

Here’s why.  Religion is all about doing things while not doing other things in an attempt to become acceptable to God.  And, as more and more situations come to reality, more and more layers to the rules/regulations/requirements must be added to deal with these new situations.  So, in religion, there is an ever increasing complexity which must be navigated and that is hard.  In this paradigm, one must answer questions to decide if something is allowed or not allowed.  For example, if a rule exists that I’m not supposed to patronize a restaurant that serves alcohol, if that restaurant decides to not serve alcohol on Sundays, am I now allowed to go on Sundays?  You get the idea.

Trying to navigate the in’s and out’s of all this type of maze is confusing and paralyzing.  And it is HARD.  What even makes it harder is when the person who is the “keeper of the rules” decides that you have somehow violated a rule because of part A of sub-paragraph 2 of paragraph 5 of Title 9 and, therefore, you are to be rebuked for said violation.  Trying to keep up with each layer of complexity as it is added is hard.  

And that is why religion IS hard.  Religion is all about keeping the rules and keeping sin in check.  Religion is all about sin management.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about the Spirit and the nature of Christ which is now the nature that resides in me.  And this is exactly why Christianity is EASY.  Because I have believed the message of Christ that He faithfully fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law, revealing Him as THE Faith and Faithful One, I have received the adoption as a son of God and received the Spirit of Christ which God sent forth into my heart.  Even the faith I now possess isn’t mine; it’s Christ’s.  Faith which originates with me has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.  My faith cannot save me, but the faith of the One who is completely faithful and Who is THE Faith can save me.  And it has.

The fact that it is THE Faith and Faithful One and His faith by which I now live the life I live in this flesh, living now becomes a natural expression.  And what comes natural is easy to do because it doesn’t take thought.  And it becomes easier all the time as my realization of my true identity by which God knows me increases as He gives me opportunity.  I no longer need to strive or contend to make this happen.  Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God “made Him who knew no sin sin for our sake so that in Him, we should become the righteousness of God.”  When God sees me, He sees Christ. 

The reason why so many view Christianity as being hard is that for so long and in so many ways, there has been a mixture of religion and the gospel.  Many throughout the history of the church since Christ have attempted to create this mix and clothe the gospel in the cloak of religion when the two are totally incompatible.

Religion, with all of its rules and regulations, is needed for the flesh and old nature because the flesh and old nature is focused on sin and the management of it.  But when the Spirit came, the new creation, the new nature which is Christ, came into existence so that it is now by the Spirit we live and walk.  And because of His presence, there is no need for any external rules (religion) because the Spirit indwelling gives the guidance as my new identity is lived out through this body.  

And the Spirit don’t need no external rules.

The old nature needed the rules, but God has killed it off for as Paul says in Galatians 2:19, “I have been crucified with Christ.”  The old is dead and, therefore, the need for the rules of religion died right alongside it.

It’s now all about the Spirit working through my new identity and nature which is in me and allowing Him to have that expressed as He sees fit, not how some set or system of rules or code have determined.  And as the Spirit continues His work, that identity becomes more and more natural, and therefore easier, with each passing day.

Hard to imagine

Tomorrow will be my 46th birthday.  Hard to imagine.  The first week of January holds a lot of meaning for me.  Not only does my birthday occur during that time but my wedding anniversary also.  January 7th will be 25 years of marriage.  I look back at those wedding pictures and am amazed how young we looked.  Well, we were so young.  

This week is also the week which I started at two of the churches I have served.  It was Sunday, January 3rd, yes, my birthday, when I started as the youth pastor with the first church I served, First Evangelical Free Church of Grand Rapids, MI.  That was a whirlwind romance.  Even though I wasn’t paid for the first 18 months, what I still find amazing is that that church voted to call me to serve without ever meeting me.  They voted based upon the recommendation of the senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Fred Moore (who became my mentor in ministry and I very much am the type of pastor I am due to him) and the chair of the board of elders.  

My first Sunday in Fort Dodge, to begin serving First Baptist as its next pastor, was also my birthday 2010.  

So, this first week of January always causes me to think back over the years in a variety of ways.  It is amazing to think of the journey my Papa has taken me on over the past two decades: 4 churches and 3 states.  A wife who, despite all of my shortcomings, has always been supportive, and sometimes a driving force when I needed it, as God has moved us to each place.

And, I do not think it is an overstatement to say that, over the past 4 years, I have done the most growing in the area of my understanding of my Papa, His ways, and His word.  I am at a place right now that even 4 years ago I never thought possible.  My spiritual understanding has gone deeper than ever before, and as I go deeper, I continue to realize exactly how much deeper is the depths of who my Papa is.  

What does 2014 hold?  I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to it and this time next year looking back at the continued growth in many areas.

Shalom