gospel

The Struggle to Believe

Romans 10:1-13 (NLT)

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;
   it is on your lips and in your heart.”


And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”


Paul’s heartfelt desire in this portion of Romans continues to be for all Jews to know what he knows—Jesus is the Christ, the promised savior, the one who will bless all the world.

While he has brought up the subject before in Romans, Paul describes in a new way the Jews’ struggle to believe, saying they have “misdirected zeal.” In the case of the Jews, this means they have become so enamored with the Mosaic law that they cannot see the bigger picture of what God has accomplished through that law. They “cling to their own way,” and miss the incredible gift God has given all the world.

As a pastor, I have seen the same struggle in other kinds of nonbelievers. They know little or nothing about the law given to the Jews, but they have their own kind of “misdirected zeal,” chasing righteousness with God or some sort of higher power  in completely wrong ways.

In many ways, this struggle to believe is a struggle to understand the incredible simplicity of what God has done in the world through Jesus Christ. People have trouble with the idea that heartfelt belief is enough for salvation. So long as that belief makes you able to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” and declare the resurrection real, you are made right with God despite your sin.

Surely, there must be more to do, the zealous strivers think. Surely, it’s not so easy that anyone can find salvation. Surely, some good works on our part must balance out the evil that we have done; surely, there is a price we must pay.

Nope. There was a price for our sins, a terrible price, but Jesus picked up the tab by going to the cross. Any good works we do are simply a joyous response to the truth that we are already saved simply because we have believed.

Simplicity can be perplexing, I suppose. God’s work is so simple that it astonishes the angels. If we read our Bible carefully, it would seem they are puzzled about what God is doing for his little humans.

I’m thinking particularly of 1 Peter 1, where Jesus’ most impulsive apostle sounds much like our Romans text today. Like Paul, Peter rejoices in how we are saved by faith in Christ raised from the dead.

In verse 12, he says, “It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” The original Greek creates a picture of what is heavenly peeking in amazement into God’s work on earth. With this sermon today, I included the image of Jocopo Tintoretto’s 16th-century “Last Supper,” as it includes angels hovering in the smoke, watching Jesus prepare his disciples for his trip to the cross.

In theory, those of us who call ourselves Christians have grasped salvation’s simplicity, even if the angels have not. But I think we have to acknowledge that we also demonstrate some of that misdirected zeal first attributed to the Jews. Our problem is more rooted in forgetting why we exist as a church.

All churches, and consequently, all church members, have a scripturally defined vision and mission, both aligned with what Paul calls “the very message about faith that we preach,” this simple good news about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

At Luminary, we state the vision and mission in our communications. For example, look at the cover of our bulletins or the front page of our web site. Our vision is “a world conformed to Jesus Christ,” and our consequent mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” Our daily job as a church is to figure out how to localize the mission and then live into it.

This next part is hard for me to say, but I think it’s true. Even with our vision and mission before us, we too often go off on tangents, sometimes quite zealously. As a church, we have to be careful not to lose our way.

One example: We love to gather, particularly on Sundays and Wednesdays, but to what end? Fellowship is good, but ideally our fellowship should draw us and those currently outside our church circle into a deeper relationship with Christ. Are we structuring our gatherings in the fellowship hall, the Sunday school room or the small group gathering to such an end?

Another example: We love music at our particular church. We often revel in it, and there is a real effort there to glorify God as we worship. But again, we have to be sure we are always asking ourselves, “Are we using our love for music to draw others into a relationship with Christ?” And even if we are, how can we do it better?

There are a couple of tests we can apply to any of these environments, or to the church as a whole. The first one is simple: Are we working alongside the Holy Spirit to make new Christians? We did have an adult baptism and a reaffirmation of faith last week, examples of two people publicly engaging with Christ’s kingdom in new ways.

So, the answer is yes, occasionally. We’re not really changing lives enough to qualify us as some sort of dynamic force for the kingdom, however.

The second one is a little harder to quantify. Individually, are we growing in our depth of understanding and our commitment to the kingdom? I try to make an overall assessment as a pastor, but the answer for each of you individually lies in your own hearts. Are you closer to God each year, or are you casually chugging through life with God in the background somewhere?

I’ll simplify all of this with an old cliché: We too often fail to keep our eyes on the prize. We forget that we live to see evil destroyed and creation fully aligned with God. We live to see progress made toward those ends in our community now.

We forget that we have eternity ahead of us, and we let the concerns of this brief worldly existence pull us off a very clear, very simple mission.

We have to remember that when we operate with misdirected zeal, we are chasing something of far less value than what Christ is offering the world, and we are failing to live into what we are called to be as Christians.

Maybe our zeal is for a good feeling about good works. Maybe we chase a kind of status or respect we’ve failed to find elsewhere. Maybe we desire human relationships to the exclusion of a relationship with our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Maybe we become so used to operating like a club that we forget what it means to function as an active, living part of God’s universal church.

Next week, we’ll dive into what Paul has to say about really preaching this simple good news about Jesus Christ as our risen Lord and Savior. In the meantime, I hope you’ll do what I’ve been trying to do the past several weeks.

Spend some time assessing how deeply you’ve let Christ in and how committed you are to letting him use you for his kingdom. What we determine in that assessment will help us as we move further into Romans.

The Stumbling Stone

Romans 9:30-33 (NLT)

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,
   a rock that makes them fall.
But anyone who trusts in him
   will never be disgraced.”


“What does all this mean?” We cannot forget that as Paul wrote, there was a perplexing development in early Christianity.  Most of Paul’s fellow Jews were not accepting the very Jewish Jesus as their messiah. And even more strangely, non-Jewish people had begun to follow Jesus as Christ in droves.

Paul blamed the Jews’ weak response on theological myopia. The Jews had been blessed by God with the Mosaic law, but had begun to study the minutiae of God’s revelation so closely that they failed to see the fulfillment of its promises and prophecies in the world around them—particularly, the signs and miracles provided by Jesus and the early church leaders.

Have you seen on video or in real life people walking along and staring at their cell phones so intently that they do not see the tree, fountain or bicycle in the way? The Jewish religious leaders were unable to see Jesus for the scrolls in front of their faces.

Jesus was a shock to them, like a jutting rock in an otherwise neat cobblestone path. What the Jews thought of as their orderly world was upset by his arrival, and some people simply don’t like to have the world as they see it disturbed.

Most modern Christians are certainly not Jewish in any real sense of the word, even if some of us might have some Jewish blood. By definition, we have been baptized as followers of Jesus Christ and have pledged ourselves to upholding and living out certain beliefs that go along with being one of Christ’s disciples.

Yet even for us, Jesus can at times be a stumbling stone. When our minds are fully open to what is revealed in Scripture, we are confronted with the reality of who he is, what he has done, what he continues to do, and how all that changes the world. As we explore these truths, we sometimes sense our own nearsightedness. Like the Jews of Paul’s day, we also like our world comfortable and predictable, and I’ll warn you now, Jesus can be a threat to our sense of stability.

Who is he, and what has he done? Well, we believe he is God in flesh, the one who came among us to teach us about divine love. He then demonstrated that love by dying a horrible death in our place for our sins. His resurrection from death proves his work was and is effective. We are restored to God despite our sins.

The very idea that God would come and live even for a short time among his creation, as one of his creation, is bizarre. The idea of God experiencing death for our benefit, even with his ultimate resurrection to overcome that death, is even stranger.

And yet, the story of how God took on flesh and lived and died among us is core to what we believe as Christians. If these ideas were untrue, then Jesus would be just another nice guy whose loving nature got him killed. The lesson would be that we had better learn to seek power and success in this world so we aren’t killed, too.

What does Jesus continue to do, and how does that change the world? It is here we really see Jesus as our stumbling stone. When we talk in past tense about what Jesus did, we make him into a nice little history lesson. Jesus engages us directly, though, in the lives we live now.

Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s true we no longer see him directly. But he said he would send another, and as we’ve already been reminded in Romans by Paul, the Holy Spirit, that third aspect or experience of God, is among us now.

The same Spirit involved in the creation of all things and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb continues to work in us today. I hope most of us who call ourselves Christians have experienced the Spirit at work in our lives in some way. When we sense his presence, we are reminded that the world is changing and the idea of a stable, predictable pattern to life is fiction.

For the world is not the way God wants it to be. It is not to be a place of sickness and dying; it is not to be a place where evil exists. Christ’s redeeming work moves us toward real stability, the kind of comfort and predictability we crave—eternal life with God.

Yes, Paul keeps going back to core Christian beliefs. It’s because we need to keep hearing them. The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing now, through the Holy Spirit, should inform and modify every decision we make in our lives.

I am too often disappointed in myself when it comes to decision making. Oh , how easy it is to make decisions without keeping core Christian truths before me, letting them shape my every move.

Frankly, I also am often disappointed in our church, both locally and on a larger scale, when I see how we fail to keep these core, scripturally defined truths before us in everything we do. A time will come when we look back and be deeply saddened as we consider how we missed opportunities to live into the truth of who Christ is and what he is doing.

In short, we are failing to turn the world upside down. If you’ll look in Acts 17, you’ll see that is the accusation made against the early Christians—turning the world upside down with the message of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing. And I don’t think we should be satisfied until we are accused by the world of doing the same.

During the next couple of weeks, Paul is going to help us understand more clearly why it is so important that we carry this stumbling stone called Jesus into the world to interrupt the lives of others.

 

God Is Faithful

Romans 3:1-8 (NLT)

Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision? Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,

“You will be proved right in what you say,
   and you will win your case in court.”


“But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.) Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world? “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.


Paul continues to speak about the Jews. They are a special people, he tells us, chosen by God to be the revealers of his true nature. God has made many promises to them as a people, and those promises will be fulfilled.

For several centuries, people calling themselves Christians have conveniently forgotten this truth about the Jews’ special place in God’s great plan. These people have dared to go so far as to persecute and kill Jews. Their faulty logic and failure to heed Scripture don’t need rehashing here.

As Methodists, our biblically rooted first rule for living, “Do no harm,” should tell us all we need to know about persecution. We don’t persecute others, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t persecute Jews, we don’t persecute Muslims, we don’t persecute Hindus, we don’t persecute anyone. When in a part of the world blessed with freedom, we preach and teach biblical truths to anyone who will listen, but we live peaceably with others regardless of how they receive that preaching and teaching.

As Paul discusses the special role of the Jews, he also reveals something about God’s nature that’s worth focusing on today.

We of course know we are supposed to be faithful to God, to be true to God. But lo and behold, it’s a two-way street, one God drove down first! God remains faithful to the Jews, even though many have turned away from him. And in revealing himself in full through Jesus, who is Messiah first to the Jews and then to the world, God showed his faithfulness to all of humanity.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that God’s faithfulness toward us is the driving force behind history. If God were not faithful toward his creation, there would be no history.

We have no reason to expect such positive treatment from our creator. There are a lot of indications in the Bible that God feels what we would call “pain” when humans sin.

Genesis 6:5-8, the beginning of the Great Flood story, is a good example:

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord.

In the Great Flood story, death and chaos did follow. The surprising part is it was not complete. God left an escape clause for humanity, a way to continue. Noah found favor with the Lord.

It’s not that Noah was perfect or sinless. As best we can tell, he simply craved a relationship with God. He wanted to be right with God, to be aligned with God. And for God, that was enough to keep trying to heal that broken relationship with humanity, despite our sinful nature causing him pain.

Apparently, the merest turning of our eyes toward God is enough to warrant a response. God is holy; that is, his very being defines what is right and what is wrong, and he cannot tolerate sin forever. God also is love, however, and the loving nature of God makes him very patient. God chooses to keep loving us despite our sins.

This understanding of God’s ongoing faithfulness takes us to the core of Christianity, to that John 3:16 truth of what God is doing. God loves his creation so much that he took on flesh and lived among us. Being in pain already because of our sin, God went ahead and made his pain real in our world, dying on the cross for our sins.

He loves us so much he made reunion with him easy. Just believe in the work he has done.

A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being so faithful toward us that he actually pursues us. In fact, the ease with which salvation is received may be one of the biggest hurdles some people have to overcome to be able to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior.

A relationship with God is something to be earned, a lot of people think, particularly if they have striven for success in other areas. Don’t we first have to clean up our act?

No, we don’t. It’s that simple. God is so faithful in the promises he has made through time—to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites, to the Israelites again through the prophets, and ultimately to all of us through Jesus Christ—that he is just waiting on us to let him fulfill them.

Do you want a relationship with God? Just say yes. There’s no asterisk here, no fine print on a back page of a contract. Just say yes.

We don’t want to stop there, of course. God has also promised restoration, a driving out and destruction of sin. We can be the people God intended us to be. Don’t forget to say “yes” to that offer, too.

Sometimes, this process of spiritual growth does take time. It’s hard to lay down old habits and walk away from the comfortable mud holes where we’ve learned to wallow. We have to say yes to God’s offer of restoration on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

The offers of salvation and restoration are always before us. Why? Because God is faithful first. Our faith in him by comparison is a tiny, almost token response, but it is enough to gain us the eternal life we are continually offered.

 

A Deep Longing

Romans 1:8-17 (NLT)

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart by spreading the Good News about his Son.

One of the things I always pray for is the opportunity, God willing, to come at last to see you. For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours.

I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles. For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike. So I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News.

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”


From personal experience, I would say that until you have really studied Paul’s letters, it’s easy to stereotype him as cold and disconnected, a logical and doctrinaire man. He did, after all, spend a lot of time defining the nature of sin and exhorting holiness.

There was a burning passion in the man, however, an inner fire driving his lifetime of ministry. We might say he had a mission. Not coincidentally, it is our same mission today. Oh, for us to exhibit the same fire, the same longing!

Paul initially said he longed to visit the Roman Christians, a longing indicative of a greater desire. They constituted a church he had never seen gathered in one place. During his travels, he likely had crossed paths with some of its members, but he wanted the full experience of being with them.

He was specific regarding why he wanted to be among them. First, he said, he believed he could help them grow in their faith. They knew Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but Paul believed he could contribute in a particular way with his spiritual gifts, and that their giftedness would encourage and lift him up, too.

When I was in public relations, I grew to hate the word “synergy.” Everyone wanted to use it to describe every business transaction under the sun, hoping to convince investors that the sum of two business interests joining together would be greater than the parts. It didn’t hurt that the word rhymed with “energy,” and I worked for an energy company.

Paul was talking about synergy in its truest sense, though. When Christians bring their unique gifts together as a church, they do accomplish much more than what was possible separately. Among the group, the Holy Spirit is more fully expressed as new people and new gifts enter the mix.

Newness and change can be frightening for a group, but as long as the newness is rooted in God’s will, there is nothing to fear. That’s why a healthy church’s members always look to new Christians in their midst and excitedly wonder, “What possibilities do you bring?”

Paul revealed what he thought his primary contribution might be once in Rome. He was eager, he said, to preach the Good News. We’ve already identified “Good News” as meaning word of Christ’s death on the cross, a work that makes salvation possible for even the worst of sinners.

Perhaps the church in Rome did not yet have anyone gifted in preaching the Good News. Perhaps they did have capable preachers, but Paul thought he could contribute to the effort in a new way. Regardless, Paul wanted to help the church live into its mandate to bring people to an understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I can call it a mandate because Jesus gave his followers clear, indisputable instruction regarding what they were (and are) to do. This instruction came from Jesus after his resurrection from the dead, and is recorded at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”

It’s a mandate we still own as a church today. Here at Luminary, all you have to do is look on the front of a worship bulletin to see that we own it, at least on paper. We say that our mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The question for us is whether we have Paul’s passion for the task. I think it is still the key question for every church today: Are we passionately trying to bring people into that relationship with Christ?

The last thing we want to be is Laodicea. Remember Laodicea, one of the churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation? The risen Christ said this about Laodicea: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Rev. 3:15-16)

To be a church passionate about our primary mission, some of us have to preach the scriptural truth, from a pulpit and in other places in our community. The word does have to be spoken.

It is a given, however, that not all of us are gifted in ways where we can comfortably preach in the traditional sense. I’m sure all of us have seen the old study showing many people fear public speaking more than death. Such anxiety does not relieve us of our responsibility to play a part in the mission, though—we are all called to play a role in declaring the Good News.

It is not as hard as it sounds. All of us are capable of establishing loving relationships. Showing love toward others is the first step toward helping people understand how much God loves them.

People are needlessly afraid of the word “evangelism.” If that word bothers you, just remember to love others. As your loving relationships grow, opportunities will arise for you to explain the source of all that love. God is love; the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love. At that moment, you’ll be evangelizing and you may not even realize at first what you’re doing.

Out of genuine love for the people we engage, I think we do have to get to the point. We do eventually have to offer them Christ.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, I try to be a good person and let my life be the witness.” Sorry, but that’s a bit of a cop-out.

Jesus didn’t say, “Show everyone you’re a good person.” Your behavior may draw people to you, but Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” He was pretty specific.

As individual Christians, we need to be sure we’re getting to the point with those who need a deeper relationship with Christ. As a church, we need to be sure all of our programs and ministries ultimately help people discover the point, too.

And remember, a little passion for who we are and what we do always helps. If you lack passion, it may be time to hear the Good News for yourself again. God loves you—God has given you eternal life!—and that truth should excite anyone.

Division

Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


After a reading like that, I suppose I should begin with some comforting words.

Yes, God is love. Yes, grace is freely given. Our God is a patient God, doing all he can to draw lost people to him. Forgiveness and the gift of eternal life are being poured out on us in buckets, despite so many people standing under umbrellas of cynicism.

That said, at this point in Luke, Jesus has clearly gone apocalyptic on us. He uses language designed to remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice necessary to make all that grace and love possible. And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to choose sides in a great cosmic battle, with no regard to what our choice may cost us in this life.

Jesus’ apocalyptic language forces Christians to consider our core beliefs. Fire and baptism are purification words. Jesus was saying that despite his lack of sin, he would go through the purifying fire of crucifixion for us, and that ultimately all of creation will be purified through this act. Humans can actually choose where to stand in all of this—with what is pure and what will remain forever, or with the dross to be burned away.

The great gift of the cross is that we now have a choice. Before, we were all just dross, lacking the purity to be in God’s presence.

I think even Christians struggle with some of this tough language because we confuse adherence to the truth with being judgmental. Clearly, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. My own personal approach to this is to be as laissez-faire (libertarian) in my approach to the secular world as possible, while at the same time exercising my right to declare the importance of choosing Christ and living the Christian life.

Don’t ask the state to look like the church, and definitely don’t force the church to mimic the state or society in general. If we’re really convinced the Holy Spirit is at work in this world, we should never doubt his ability to win minds in what is sometimes called the “marketplace of ideas.”

This approach doesn’t satisfy all Christians. If it did, groups like the Moral Majority would have never sprung up. This approach does, however, let us focus on messages that have made Christianity successful for nearly two millennia, rather than getting bogged down in the events of the day. Let’s consider those messages:

Christ is the answer. By that, we mean the answer to all the big questions in life, questions like “Is there meaning to life,” “Why do we suffer,” and “Is there more than just this life?” And yes, Jesus made some exclusive claims to being the answer—he claimed oneness with the Creator, and said the only way to the Father is through him.

C.S. Lewis and other writers and theologians have noted that such a claim creates a “trilemma” for anyone considering following Christ. Taking his claim at face value, Jesus can be just one of three things: divine, insane or evil.

Universalists, people who say there are many paths to God, don’t like exclusivity, but you have to reject significant portions of Scripture to deny Christ’s claim. There may be ways for people to carry in them the light of Christ without having heard Jesus’ name, but once introduced to him, they should recognize him right away.

Being Christian does make you different. Being seen as countercultural seems to be in again. Welcome to the original countercultural movement, the one that challenged the most powerful empire on earth. It is a movement that truly changed the world, declaring early on that people are the same regardless of gender, color or social status. Yes, the body of believers can behave like a cluster of big institutions, and yes, Christians often fail to act like Christ, but this differentiating truth remains.

There is clear guidance from God available to us. People are craving something by which they can steer their lives.  They want something they can trust, something not likely to blow about in the ever-changing social wind. The Bible is God’s long-standing revelation to humanity. Even the newest material in it is nearly 2,000 years old. Its truths about God and how God wants to relate to humanity have served people well in a wide variety of cultures, be they in the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age or Space Age. (What are we in now? The Digital Age?)

Yes, not everyone will agree with these basic messages. Some people, maybe people in your own homes, will become angry upon hearing them, turning on you or at least turning their backs on you.

That’s okay. Jesus said it would happen. He also said he would make it all right in the end. Look it up.


The featured image is Joos Van Cleve’s “The Last Judgment,” painted some time in the late 15th or early 16th century.

The Invitation

Romans 10:5-15 (NRSV)

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Amen to that. It doesn’t matter what your feet actually look like—when they arrive carrying you, the bearer of the message of Jesus Christ, they are going to seem beautiful to the person who finds eternal life through your words.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, some of what I write here today has been written on this site before. I want to get it down in a new way, however. In particular, I want the new congregation I serve to hear it.

In our Scripture reading today, Paul uses what now sounds like elaborate language to communicate some core points about Christianity. Salvation, he tells us, is a matter of believing Jesus is Lord and then confessing that belief openly. Salvation is for all; God doesn’t distinguish among types of sinners.

Someone has to make the declaration, however. Once-thirsty people have to tell the parched how to find the living water. Otherwise, the parched will die.

As church people, we have to get this concept, and then we have to live it. When we fail, we stop being the church. We instead become the equivalent of a Ruritan Club operating under a Christian name.

I’m going to give you a basic strategy for Luminary UMC, one rooted in Paul’s words. It’s a big-picture strategy, and it should drive every other decision we make.

Step 1: Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again. “Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The people inside might even seem old or out of touch to many of the lost. It is just one of many places they may or may not choose to go.

Step 2: Start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and everything else we do as a church will fall into place.

Now, like I said, this is big-picture stuff. I have no doubt that many of you just said to yourselves, “I can’t do that,” or maybe even, “There’s no way I’m doing that—I’m not going to look like a fool.”

I understand. I’ve been there. I don’t have time today to teach you in full how to share Christ with others, but let me promise you this: It’s easier than it sounds. I learned, and I’ve never once felt I was embarrassed or perceived as weird while helping people learn who Jesus Christ is.

You know how to make friends, right? First, you simply need to be relational, to be open enough to get to know people and let people get to know you. It also helps to pray for a heart open to people different from you.

The next part is learning to talk naturally with others about your relationship with Jesus Christ. This is mostly about trusting that the Holy Spirit has arrived ahead of you in the person’s life—you simply have to follow God’s lead.

As I learned to tell others about Christ, I was astonished at how I mostly was in the position of answering questions. I’ve never had to be pushy or calculating; I’ve never forced my beliefs on anyone. People are hungry for some word from God, for some assurance that life is about more than 80 or 90 years in pursuit of stuff. Tell God you’re willing to be open about your relationship with him, and people will actually invite you to answer their questions.

Sometimes in a particular church, a few people embrace these ideas and remarkable events begin to happen. I saw this happen at Salem UMC, a church in Kingsport, near my last appointment.

For reasons that will become obvious, I wanted to get to know Salem’s pastor, Will Shewey. Will has since moved on to participate in a new church start in the Kingsport area.

Over a period of about four years, Salem’s average church attendance grew from 90 to well over 200, and most of that growth was from first-time professions of faith. For example, in the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost in 2013, Will baptized 26 people. Similar numbers have continued into this year.

Will said that people he had never met before would walk into his office asking for baptism. They had encountered one of Salem’s parishioners in one setting or another and found their way to life with Jesus.

“So you’ve got your people trained to evangelize?” I asked.

Will laughed. “I’ve got five or six who take it seriously,” he said.

That’s the kind of impact just a handful of people can have. Imagine a church where a significant percentage of the church’s members agree to do what Jesus called all of us to do—tell others about Christ.

I preach this message here at Luminary UMC expecting a very specific response. Will you be one of those people? Are you willing to learn? Will you let this new attitude become the basis for our decision making here?

If so, I’m willing to teach you, with full confidence that Christ will take care of a faithful church.

Leading from a Cross

Matthew 23:1-12

We use the word “leader” in both secular and Christian settings. Christianized leadership is so different, however, that the task almost needs a different word.

Jesus’ teachings about leadership are the basis for the stark contrast. We look in particular to the words he spoke as he denounced Jewish religious leaders in his day.

One of these confrontations, found in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, comes across as harsh, particularly when you consider that just a few breaths earlier Jesus had spoken of the need to root our actions in love. (I suppose there’s a side lesson here: Loving certain people can mean having the courage to point out where they go against God.)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach,” Jesus said.

He went on to point out the hypocrisy of these religious leaders, who were supposed to be working from sound understandings of Jewish scripture—writings filled with lessons about the importance of justice and mercy. Instead, he said, these leaders increased the burdens of the average Jew.

They also took great pleasure in the accouterments and honors that went with their positions. In a long diatribe, Jesus described them as legalistic nitpickers who had been entrusted with words of life but instead were better associated with death.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus said.

Our savior also practiced what he taught, becoming the great example of humble leadership. His trip to the cross brought him to the ultimate low point, death; his resurrection led to great exaltation.

The implications for Christian leadership are enormous. Followers of Christ are people who should turn the very idea of leading upside-down. In a Christian context, leadership becomes sacrifice rather than gain. A Christian leader lives in the mud surrounding the pedestal.

And yes, there is a serious dearth of true Christian leadership in the Christian community today. There are good leaders among both the clergy and the laity. But both the United Methodist Church and the larger, universal church desperately need more.

I’ve never heard anyone in a congregation complain, “We’ve got more good leaders than we know how to use.”

It would help, I am sure, if we who are already leading were better at explaining the basic role of a leader in a Christian community. That way, people could more clearly understand whether they are called to a leadership role.

Right now, we define “leader” mostly by describing a particular function in the church, usually defined as service on a board or a committee. A job description really doesn’t tell us how to lead, though. It just describes what specific task needs to be done.

In 1984, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder interacted very closely with the New Testament to describe the four basic types of leaders in a Christian community. If you feel you’re equipped to fill one or more of these roles, you’re probably called to lead in the church in some way.

Yoder said good Christian leaders act as:

  • Agents of Direction. These people keep the vision of the kingdom of God before the people. They function like prophets, reminding others of the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ, work that ultimately restores creation to its holy state. They make sure the church remembers that it exists to help usher in this kingdom.
  • Agents of Memory. These leaders help the church remember what is in Scripture and what the traditions have been regarding interpretation of God’s word, particularly where these reminders are relevant to a particular issue before the church. They do this largely without judgment.
  • Agents of Linguistic Self Consciousness. In other words, people who are sensitive to how words are used. Think of these people as the cooler heads in the crowd, the peacemakers who calmly untangle what others are saying.
  • Agents of Order and Due Process. People who ensure the unity of the group even in the midst of conflict, encouraging participation by all.

Some people may react to this list of “agents” by saying, “But those are the things the pastor is supposed to do.” And therein, I suspect, lies a significant part of our leadership crisis.

Certainly, a pastor should have a good sense of how to function in all four roles. But at the same time, the pastor should know this in order to equip others to fulfill these roles. We’ve become too reliant on church “professionals.”

A healthy church is full of people so committed to the spiritual disciplines that Jesus’ teachings have shaped their heads and hearts for leadership. Once leading, they simply have to ask themselves a few questions now and then.

Am I making others’ lives easier? Am I willing to do this without fame, title or even acknowledgment? Am I one who learns even while leading? Do I ensure justice, mercy and faith spread because of what I do?

A leader who can answer “yes” to these questions is exhibiting Jesus-style leadership.