Gut Check question

On March 4th, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a priest who is a member of the Salesian order, was kidnapped by Islamic radicals in Yemen. The Franciscan Sisters of Siessen, based in South Africa, warned on Facebook of the priest’s imminent demise, stating that the priest is being tortured and that he will be crucified on Good Friday. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Salesians, speaking in Bangladesh, India, stated that the order has no information. “These are all rumors. When no has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, how do we know other details,” he stated.

The purpose of this blog post is not to attempt to debate the validity of the Franciscan Sisters of Siessans statement of information they say they have received. The purpose is to once again draw attention to a statement of Jesus found in Matthew 16:24. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

In another blog, “The Danger of ‘Spiritualizing,'” I discuss why I think that the common application of this particular statement of Jesus is very far from what Jesus was actually saying, so I will not rehash it here.

What I will say here is that, if the report of the intended crucifixion of Father Uzhunnalil is true and Father Uzhunnalil remains true to his declaration of Jesus as Lord and is therefore crucified Friday, then he will be a modern day example of Jesus’ very strong statement from Matthew 16:24. He is willing to take up that cross and actually deny himself the ability to breath.

And all this got me to thinking; if all this does occur, how many followers of Jesus, if in Father Uzhunnalil’s place, would make the same decision? How many would choose to lose actual life (verse 25 uses the Greek word for “soul” by which was meant actual physical life, not quality of life)? How many would do whatever it took to continue breathing, even if it meant denouncing Christ?

It’s impossible to say for sure until one is actually in that position, but the question is a “gut check.” It is a question that should cause each follower to examine the depth and strength of his/her commitment and true belief

For the only true commitment and belief is that upon which we act and respond.



Giving up something does not truly draw you closer to God unless…

The Lenten season is drawing to an end. Admittedly, I do not observe the season of Lent. When asked what I gave up for Lent, a common response from me is “Lent.”

I often wonder what is a person’s motivation in giving up (fasting) from something during the 40 days of Lent. In my conversations with different people, I have heard different responses such as “Sacrificing (insert the item) helps me better understand the sacrifice of Christ” and “Giving up (insert the item) helps me better focus on God” or “Giving up (insert the item) draws me closer to God.”

This might sound harsh to some, but I, in no way, believe that giving up chocolate or coffee or something else, for a period of 40 days even remotely begins to allow one to understand the sacrifice of Christ and what He went through, unless that giving up involves being beaten within an inch of your life and then killed. It’s not even close, and I believe it arrogant to think that it does. Sorry if you find that harsh, but I’m not really sorry; I believe it’s reality.

And how does giving up chocolate or coffee or something else help one focus on God, especially if it is not done with God’s heart intention for fasting, whether that be from food or something else?

God had two issues with the Jews in how they went about fasting. (This is based upon Isaiah 58) The first issue was that appearances was the motivation for the action. During Isaiah’s time, and even into the time of Jesus earthly ministry, the focus was on the action, not the heart behind the action, because it was the action determined if one was righteous or not. They knew the Scriptures had authority over all aspects of life. God may have been a mystery to them, but behavior was not. It was scrupulous behavior, not the condition of the heart, that defined a “righteous” person. Thus, many Jews had a desire to honor God by doing all the right things. This reality was one of Jesus’ main criticisms against the teaching of the religious leaders of his day which is why Jesus said, “It is not what enters the mouth that defiles the person, but what proceeds out of the mouth that defiles the man.” He further explained to Peter that “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart.” (Matthew 15:11,18)

The second issue was that people misunderstood the intention behind the fasting. It is far too common that giving something up is all about the one giving it up, even if the stated reason is drawing closer to God. But the action itself does not truly draw one closer to God’s heart if the result of the fasting, or giving up whatever the thing is, God’s true heart intention behind the action, is not accomplished.

For example, the Jews back in Isaiah’s day thought they were being good and obedient and God-honoring people by fasting. The problem was this: they were using fasting as a savings plan for themselves or using the money that would have been spent on food on something else for themselves. God states that was not His heart intention behind the command to fast. His heart intention for fasting was that the money not spent on food would be used to help those in need. This is the reason why God says, “Is this not the fast I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8)

God’s heart intention was that the fasting would result in an action; it would result in a type of redemption.

So here’s my question. If you gave up a daily latte from Starbucks during the 40 days of Lent, what happened to that money you would have otherwise spent? Did you just spent it on yourself in a different way? Then I would contend that you have not drawn near to God’s heart because God’s heart has the intention that the money not spent of a daily latte be used to help one in need. Doing the action itself does not draw one close to God’s heart if the desired result of God’s heart does not occur.

If you gave up some type of behavior, say being critical of people or anger, were you instead making positive comments to people or demonstrating gentleness? If not, then I would contend that giving up being critical of people or anger has not truly drawn you near to God’s heart because His heart’s desired action for opposite behavior was not present.

Maybe you gave up some type of activity and did not spend time on that activity. How did you spend that time? Did you just fill it with another activity for yourself, or did you spend it on others, being with them and demonstrating care for them? If not, then I would contend that giving up that activity has not truly drawn you near to God’s heart because His heart’s desired action for that time was not present.

All of this has to do with something that is very close to the center of God’s heart – redemption. And it is something that should be done on a daily basis, not just during a 40 day period, which is why I do not observe Lent. God’s intention is that redemption occurs on a daily basis. And we can participate ourselves in redemption when we take that money not spent, or behavior not demonstrated, or time not spent doing that activity and use that money or action or time to impact the lives of others with God’s heart, love, and goodness and do this year round.

Why was the gospel of Jesus scandalous?

There are times when I am convinced that, for many people who are followers of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus has lost its scandalous edge.

So, how was the gospel of Jesus scandalous to those living in the early years of Christianity?

It was scandalous in two ways: one way with the Roman world and another way with the Jews. Let’s deal with the Roman world way first.

The gospel of Jesus was scandalous for one reason. And that reason was found in the foundational statement of Christianity – “Jesus is Lord.” It wasn’t scandalous because it preached a monotheistic faith. Jews lived throughout the Roman world and had been given a special exemption to continue to adhere to the monotheism of Judaism. So for the Roman world, a monotheistic belief system was not something new. But requiring a person to declare with one’s mouth, meaning publicly, “Jesus is Lord” was tantamount to treason for a Roman. One did not make this confession glibly or without commitment, for the possibly consequences and results could be quite bad for the person.

How was it scandalous to the Jews? It centered around what to do with the Mosaic Law. The backbone, the foundation, of Judaism was the Mosaic Law with all of its requirements; this was what made a Jew a Jew. Adhering to the Law gave to Jews their identity; it set them apart. So when Paul begins preaching the gospel, as it was revealed and taught to him by Christ Himself, that the purpose of the Law had been fulfilled and since through one being crucified, buried, and resurrected with Christ gave that one a new and only nature which is Christ’s nature, following the Law was no longer necessary. So Paul taught that not only was it not necessary for Gentile believers to begin following the Law after belief, it was no longer necessary for Jewish believers to follow it either. (Romans 7:1-4) Paul even told the Galatian believers that he had become like them in regard as to the Law. This was scandalous to many Jews, both inside the Faith and outside. It’s why they also sought to have him arrested! Teaching that it was no longer necessary to follow the Law? How dare he!?

Unfortunately, the gospel has lost its scandalous edge because of two realities being commonly present even today.

First is this: the Faith, which has as its foundational statement/oath “Jesus is Lord,” has been combined with a “nationalism.” There are many, I believe, that, through what they say and how they respond to different situations, have done this, sometimes to the extent that it is difficult to determine where the gospel ends and “nationalism” starts. In the minds of many, the two have become synonymous. And it’s all because the gospel has been allowed to lose its scandalous edge.

Second is this: there are many teachers and leaders in the Faith who teach that it is required, to some degree, to follow the Law as found in the Old Testament. They may not use the term “Law” itself, but anytime a code or system of rules and regulations for “proper” Christian behavior is created and expected to be followed, that’s exactly what has happened. Using Paul’s wording, these teachers and leaders are teaching, “Don’t handle; don’t taste; don’t touch.” (Colossians 2:21) Paul then says that these types of requirements and prohibitions have a “reputation of wisdom in self-imposed worship and lowliness and severe treatment of the body” but then says, they “are not of any value against the indulgences of the flesh.”

These things speak to a nature that is no longer living in believers – the old nature, and are religious in nature. That is not the gospel. The gospel actually throws out religious mandates because they speak to the old nature which God has killed and buried with Christ. We are to speak to the new nature in a persn, for as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, “So then we, from now on, know no one according to the flesh, even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him so no longer. So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, they have become new.”

I believe that a foundational problem for the assembly of Jesus here in the United States is that the gospel has lost its scandalous edge in both of these ways. It has been transformed into some type of “nationalistic civil religion” with a code of morality that must be followed.

And until that scandalous edge is recaptured, I will not be surprised that the Faith in this country continues to decline in both quantity and quality.

Not a rumor, but fact

Currently, in the adult Sunday school class, we are studying the book of Acts and using a study book written by N.T. Wright. This past Sunday, I taught the class. We were in Acts 21-22 where the Apostle Paul has returned to Jerusalem for the last time before being arrested and heading to Rome.

There was something that Wright wrote in an explanatory paragraph about the encounter Paul had with James and the elders of the assembly with which I disagreed. He wrote that there were rumors among the believers in Jerusalem that not only had Paul been telling Gentile converts that they didn’t need to be circumcised, but had also been telling Jews to abandon their ancestral traditions and customs as well. It was Wright’s assertion that Paul neither said nor did this very thing. I totally disagree.

By this time, Paul had written his letter to the believers living in Rome, which encompasses much of Paul’s understanding of the gospel as it was revealed and taught to him by Christ. In Romans 7, Paul tells the Jewish believers (he starts by saying that he is speaking to those who know the law, meaning Jews) that just like a woman whose husband has died is no longer bound by the law to her husband and is free to marry another, any believer, Jews included, because s/he has died to the law, is released from the mandates of the law and free to be joined to Christ. So Paul is directly telling Jews that it is no longer necessary for them to follow their ancestral traditions and customs. Wright was wrong and the rumors were true.

I bring all of this up because there are people within the global assembly today who teach adherence to the law. This is very dangerous territory. Paul says in Galatians 5:3 that anyone who allows himself to be circumcise is obligated to do the whole law. In other words, a requirement to follow one part of the law must be followed with a requirement to follow ALL of it. Cherry-picking is not allowed. And Paul then says that that person has been brought to naught, separated from Christ.

One of the key components of the gospel Paul received from Christ and proclaimed was the death of the old nature, “being crucified with Christ,” and “being resurrected with Christ to walk in newness of life” a new creation with a new nature. And when one has that new nature as his/her one and only nature, no law is needed or necessary to live as God would have that person live. That’s what Paul is meaning when, after listing the fruit of the Spirit, he says that “against (or over) such things there is no law.” When one’s nature is Christ, there is no need for rules and regulations to make a person be loving, or generous, or the other characteristics. What needs to happen is for that person to continue to learn who s/he is in Christ in that new nature. Rules aren’t needed for that.

So, here’s my challenge: examine, in reality, what your approach to and relationship with the law is. What “rules,” whether explicit or implicit, does your particular assembly of believers expect you to follow? Then start questioning why, for they are unnecessary for you to be who you truly are by nature. What is needed is continually being taught who you truly are in Christ, and rules are not needed for that.

Discipleship is the process of understanding who one is in Christ by nature. Discipleship is not about giving rules and regulations for a person to follow and the better you follow the rules, the more mature a disciple is. Discipleship is helping a person understand what God has done in him/her by giving him/her a new nature, making him/her a new creation, not about adherence to a set of religious rules and actions.