Salvation

A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.


As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life, being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.

 

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Children, Seek Perfect Love

1 John 4:7-21 (NLT)

This is the fourth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Here in the fourth chapter of 1 John, the author builds toward an idea that John Wesley found very important, the notion that we can “move toward perfection.” A modern way of saying this might be, “More and more each day, we can grow in our ability to love.”

I think today it is best if we simply follow the path the author has laid down for us, a path toward perfect love. I’ll try to ensure at each milepost we understand what John is telling us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Absent a context, the opening words of today’s Scripture can seem like a trite assertion. Yeah, Christian love—we hear that phrase over and over. Don’t forget what John’s church has been through, however. There have been sharp disputes, and after such conflict it is not hard for good people to fall into bitterness and anger, emotions that will hang on long after trouble has ended.

A people forced to fight for what they believe usually need healing once the struggle ends. Even among those who have stood together, trust may have eroded. In Ephesus, the ones who turned away from the truth about Jesus Christ had once been trusted members of the churches in Ephesus, pledged at their baptisms to the same concepts as those who remained faithful.

Let’s also remember what we’ve already learned from the author. Love is an action! When I imagine these people heeding their leader’s words about loving each other, I see them traveling house to house, worshiping together, serving the world side by side, and getting back to the basic business of being in church.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Now we’re really back to basics! First, we hear the core gospel message, an echo of John 3:16. Also, we hear that God first loves us before we love him. It has to be that way. If God were not constantly using love to penetrate the dark cloud of sin surrounding this world, we would not even be able to know on our own he exists. And through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the cloud is being driven back!

That appropriate response to God’s gift, our obedience to his will, is best expressed as love. And we also hear the beginnings of where John is taking us. God is love, God lives in us, and that love inside us is a dynamic experience. It will grow toward “full expression.”

And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.

This is an expansion on the idea of God living in us once we declare Jesus Lord and Savior. It also is clear evidence John thinks in terms of a Trinitarian God. It is true the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the idea of God working as Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes up repeatedly, and particularly in John’s writings.

God works in us as the Holy Spirit. John is able to attest to having seen God at work in the world in flesh, as Jesus Christ. We cannot say we have seen God in the flesh, but we are reminded we can have just as direct an experience of God—more direct, in fact, if having God in us, whispering to our spirits, is a closer relationship than having God stand before us in the flesh.

I think we do have a closer, deeper experience! We are a blessed people, we who know God in the post-Pentecost era!

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.

We live in God and we move toward perfection. This is not an arrogant, obnoxious declaration that “we are perfect.” The word in a Wesleyan sense simply means it is possible to love others with the intensity Jesus showed when he went to the cross to die for the whole world.

As we move closer to perfect love, there also is great reward. Love drives out fear! In particular, we have no reason to fear God’s judgment, and that should mean our little fears are driven away, too. Most of those fears are rooted in a negative view of death, but Christians trust there is nothing beyond death but acceptance and bliss for all eternity.

I have actually been told by church people that it’s not wise for me to remind people they are going to die, but I decline to heed that advice. Unless Christ returns beforehand, I’m going to die, you’re going to die. People of faith, hear me: So what?

I invite you to confront the reality of your deaths boldly and without fear. I’m not asking you to invite death. Life in this world can be just as wonderful as it is painful, and it’s worth experiencing in full! But you will live this life so much better if you let your love grow, in the process becoming more fearless each day.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.

Yes, John closes us out today with something like a test. It is a test many of us are going to fail from time to time, for we can become angry at fellow believers, at times even hating them. When we fail in such ways, we can at least feel confident our loving Savior will give us another chance. His grace is abundant and magnificent.

Anger, particularly anger with our fellow church members, is a signal we need to get back to basics. It may be that some legitimate dispute needs to be resolved—let’s never forget the model for dispute resolution Jesus gave us in Matthew 18:15-17. (There are some important concepts related to forgiveness right after those verses, too.) But to cope with our anger, we also need to be more intentional about loving God in worship and in prayer, and we need to immerse ourselves in God’s holy word.

In all those actions, we encounter God’s love, we are healed, and our love moves toward perfection.

The Remembrance that Overcomes

John 20:1-18 (NRSV)

The story of the resurrection is joyous, of course. That which we should fear the most, death, is shown to be a temporary condition.

There are, however, other emotions we can sense in John’s story of the resurrection, as well as the three other gospels. There are moments where even the witnesses who love Jesus experience what we might call muddled minds, showing or expressing confusion and fear at the news Jesus is risen. These anxious responses continue for some time in the stories, even after Jesus physically appears to his followers.

In John’s version of the resurrection, Mary has every right to be confused. Coming to the tomb very early, she is deep in grief. As the events surrounding daybreak unfold, she remains rooted in the horrors of what she has seen. Her beloved teacher, the miracle worker who had brought so much hope into her life, had been beaten, crucified, and even speared through the side in the Roman guards’ effort to be sure he was dead.

Yes, the stone is missing; but Jesus is dead. Yes, there are strange-looking men in the tomb talking of wonders, but Jesus is dead. Yes, Jesus is standing right in front of me, but Jesus is deadit must be the gardener.

Not until Mary hears Jesus’ voice does she begin to live into the truth of the resurrection, soon declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” in a proclamation almost angelic in its power.

Other followers took longer to let the resurrection truth begin to reshape them. The most visible example is Peter, who seems to have continued brooding even after Jesus had physically appeared to, spoken with, and even breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

Peter’s difficulty is understandable. He was, after all, the brash disciple who failed Jesus, three times denying knowing Jesus after his arrest. Near the end of the Gospel of John, in the 21st chapter, Peter tells the other disciples, “I am going fishing.”

I find this one of the most poignant quotes in the Bible. Peter, broken by his own failure, decides to take comfort in returning to what he used to do for a living. He and six other disciples don’t go to fish to relax, like we do on the lake. They pull out the big boat, haul out the nets, and pursue a commercial catch.

The resurrection has happened—Jesus is alive, and appearing to hundreds of followers—but Peter cannot let himself be transformed by this world-changing truth. He will, though. Oh, will he learn!

From the beach, Jesus appears to his followers in the boat, giving them a sign. As they end up on the beach eating breakfast together, Jesus three times asks Peter to affirm his love, which of course, Peter does. Breakfast becomes a do-over for Peter, wiping away the pain of his three fearful denials.

Our own sinfulness and shame are similarly wiped away as we learn to trust the power and grace in Jesus’ resurrection. We hear these stories, we let the Holy Spirit go to work in our hearts, and we too are healed and restored. We call this process remembrance, and every one of us is invited to participate in this process today.

When we use the word “remember” casually, we associate it with memory. Something happened in the past. What we sensed and how we felt was stored in our brains in varying levels of clarity, and we retrieve that mental record.

When we think biblically, however, remembrance moves us to a whole new level spiritually. In a way, the words we translate as “remember” invite us to time travel.

Biblical remembrance means prayerfully immersing our emotions and souls into an event as if we were physically present. It is what we have been trying to do this past week if we’ve paid any attention at all to the story of the crucifixion.

When Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples and said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he was telling them and us, come back to this table, and all that this table representsmy broken body, my shed blood and experience how much you are loved. Our table may be in a different place and time, but we are all in the story.

If we consciously stepped into the continuing story, we walked with Jesus through the betrayals, the agonized prayers in the garden, the arrest, the beatings, and ultimately the horror of the crucifixion. It was frightening, but we see God’s love in action.

If you’re thinking this definition of remembrance sounds far-fetched, consider this: We were there. Jesus had each and every one of us on his mind and in his heart as he died on the cross. He died for our sins; he experienced their great weight and absorbed the punishment we deserve. He saw our unborn faces as he suffered.

And joy of joys, today we are invited to time travel to the resurrection, to let go of pain and shame and live into that moment where we see proof that sin and death are defeated.

Biblical remembrance is a life-changing act. I don’t know what sins weigh on you or what shame or pain you may bear, but on this Easter Sunday, walk with the risen Christ.

The cross has worked, your sins are defeated, and death is now meaningless for you!


The featured image is Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” 1638.

What We Want

Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the crowd, while certainly varying in size and makeup, acts like an individual character in the story. Mark’s crowd also represents every person trying to interpret the nature and ministry of Jesus.

So, what does this teeming crowd of Jews gathered for the Passover want? And more importantly, what is the crowd missing as the day unfolds?

Instant Gratification

What the crowd wants is for Jesus to act—now! He has made clear his claim to be the Christ; this planned act to ride a donkey colt into Jerusalem screams out the prophecy the Jews knew from Zechariah 9:9.

These are for the most part an oppressed people who cry, “Hosanna,” which literally means, “O Lord, save!” There was an expectation that the messiah would do a lot of uprooting and overturning, leading a rebellion against the hated Roman Empire and their puppet Jewish leaders.

In other words, the people in the crowd wanted a messiah for their time. It is interesting how anticlimactic the end of this passage is in Mark. I get the impression that the crowd, having not seen fire fall from the sky or heard a call to arms, has melted away, perhaps more than a little disappointed.

In Mark, Jesus will continue to arouse people in Jerusalem from time to time, cleansing the temple and teaching lessons that anger the priests and other Jewish leaders. The crowd never gets what it wants, however, and likely is the same crowd eventually calling for Jesus’ death.

The Bigger, Bloodier Picture

Thank God, however, that the crowd did not get what it wanted, a worldly warrior king. A messiah for their time certainly would have affected us, but not in the powerful ways Jesus changes our lives. Jesus proved his kingship not with worldly might. Instead, he rose to the throne over all creation by making himself a sacrifice for sin, from a human perspective an almost incomprehensible strategy.

To understand the radically sacrificial nature of the messiah, we have to back up in the story and see some of the subtle signs Jesus gave as he made his journey.

We are told Jesus approached Jerusalem from Bethphage and Bethany, meaning he traveled through the Kidron Valley, entering Jerusalem through its eastern gate. Being the time for Passover, the trip itself abounds with symbols of sacrifice.

Animals destined for slaughter at the temple would have been driven along the same route, up from the fields where they grazed. The great sacrifice, the ultimate atonement for all people in all times, the Lamb of God, traveled the road with the little sacrifices of the day.

The Kidron Valley also reminds us what a bloody religion Judaism and Christianity are. What went up through the valley also, in a sense, came back down. The blood from thousands of lambs had to be flushed from the temple, and this blood mixed with water drained directly from the temple mount into the valley. Some Bible dictionaries suggest that the word Kidron may derive from a Hebrew word meaning, “to become black.”

That one great, bloody sacrifice—God in flesh, hanging on a cross—made possible salvation for all the world. God loves the Jews, but he was working through them to save the whole world, to do more than just prop them up as a dominant global theocracy.

The crowd expected God to do great things. They just couldn’t imagine how great.

Nothing New Under the Son

We are so often like the crowd in Mark. Even as followers of Christ, we limit our expectations of an infinitely wise and loving God.

Much too often, we root our church planning and even our theology in what we want, rather than what God seems to be planning for the world now that Christ has made possible salvation. We too often want Christianity for our time and place.

I see this on a small scale in the local church. On more than one occasion, as a congregation has prepared to make changes to better reach people for Christ, I have had members ask me, “Can you not wait and do that after I die?”

One member was in her 60s and in reasonably good health, and she asked the question without a hint of irony!

On a larger scale, denominations—especially our own—are wrestling with whether biblically based beliefs should be modified to better fit contemporary issues. When we do this, what we seek is a messiah for today, rather than a Savior for all times, one who guides us toward the holiness revealed to us through Scripture by an unchanging God.

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions: Do I think the work of the church is about me and the time in which I live? Or do I think the work of the church moves us toward a time God has promised us, a time when we are gathered from across eras and places to dwell with God forever?

When we were children, our parents taught us an important lesson: Running with the crowd can be dangerous.

Our parents were right.


The featured image is “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem,” a fresco at the Nativity of the Theotokos Church in Macedonia.

A Simple Act of Faith

John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


In the midst of much talk about Christian discipline in the season of Lent, perhaps today’s Scripture will be a bit of comfort. This salvation thing is shockingly easy.

Jesus said these words after talking to Nicodemus the Pharisee rather cryptically about being “born from above” and “born from the Spirit,” leaving this leader of the Jews confused and asking questions. Jesus would ultimately make a life-changing impression on Nicodemus, however.

Three years later, the Pharisee, at great personal risk, would help Joseph of Arimathea entomb Jesus’ body. Nicodemus is credited in the Gospel of John with bringing the costly mixture of oils and spices needed to properly anoint the body.

Perhaps it was Jesus’ reference to the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness that aided Nicodemus’ understanding. The idea of salvation being linked to a bronze serpent on a pole can confuse us, but Nicodemus, being a good teacher of the Jews, would have immediately recognized the story for what it was, an illustration of faith.

The story is found in Numbers 21:4-9, which recounts God giving the Israelites a vivid lesson in sin and the way out of sin. Having grumbled against God in a most irrational way, they found themselves beset by poisonous snakes. Eventually, they admitted to Moses they had sinned against God, and God told Moses the way out: Make a metal image of a serpent, put it on a pole, and anyone who was bitten could simply lift up their eyes to the serpent and live.

Some modern people struggle with the story because the imagery seems so primitive. When reading the Old Testament, we have to remember that for the Israelites to learn about their God, the lessons had to be given in ways people barely out of the Bronze Age could understand.

There is an underlying pattern to the story, however, one that carries into today:

  • First, a rejection of God and his plan is sin.
  • Second, the results of sinning are painfully brutal, carrying the strong possibility of death.
  • Third, when we confess our sins, God will provide a way out, a path to restoration.
  • Fourth, God will make the way out so easy a child can understand.

Jesus was able to link his great work on the cross, his “lifting up,” to the bronze serpent incident because salvation through Christ follows the same underlying pattern. We have all rejected God in some way, and we have all experienced the sad effects of sin.

At some point, if we are to survive, we must wake up to our circumstances and confess we have turned our backs on God. From there, it’s simply a matter of believing there is an easy way out.

We believe the story of Jesus—who he is and what he did on the cross—and trust that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign sin and death are truly defeated. Faith is as easy as lifting our eyes to the cross and holding in our hearts the story it tells.

There is more to Christian living, of course. We should quickly move into the lifelong practice of the Christian disciplines. In short, we don’t continue to stand among the snakes (duh!), and we learn to rely on a relationship with Jesus Christ, who gives us the power to escape the snakes.

But never forget, the very beginning of salvation is so simple. If you’ve never completed this pattern to the point of salvation, you can do so right now, today. If the reading of this blog has helped you to believe for the first time, e-mail me or call me at (865) 376-7040, and I will try to take you further. It doesn’t matter where you are. The United Methodist Church has good people all over the planet.

Don’t worry too much about the discipleship and holiness stuff right now. The community we call the “church” will walk with you as you grow in your understanding and practice of your faith.

Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”


I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!


The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.

The Explorer’s Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.


We are entering a new section of Romans, one where Paul talks extensively about the long-term Christian life—the ongoing post-conversion changes we should all experience.

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, by believing in the proven work Jesus Christ has done on the cross. Our belief is enough to save us. But is there more to do?

Yes, of course there is. We have received a gift so great we cannot fully comprehend it, the gift of eternal life, Paul is saying. If we properly understand the gift, we turn our lives into a giant thank-you note to God.

We give our bodies, conforming our behaviors to his will as closely as possible. We surrender our minds, letting God’s Spirit work in us and change our very thought patterns through prayer and Scripture.

Most of us like the part about God’s grace being freely given, the fact that salvation is a simple matter of belief. But when it comes to thinking about ongoing discipleship—about actual change—well, we’re not always so receptive. The Christian life starts to sound like work.

There’s a term for when we accept the gift but offer no response, no thanks, no real change in our minds and hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, called such an attitude “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I suppose I could just stop here, hoping to shame us into responding more fully to God’s grace, the way our parents might have guilted us into writing a thank-you note for a nice present we received. I think I can make all of this a little more palatable, however. Perhaps we can even become excited about this new section of Romans.

We are called to give up some attitudes and behaviors when we become Christians. We are not left with a void, however; God replaces the lesser behaviors and thoughts we surrender with even more gifts.

We are being invited to explore the kingdom that is dawning now, even before it is present in full. Like any explorer, we have to sacrifice the stuff that weighs us down if we are going to find something new, something that will change us to the core.*

We do respond to God simply as an act of thanks. We repent of what separates us from him. We pray and search the Scripture to try to understand how to better please our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God doesn’t just receive our thank-you notes and flip them on the kitchen table with the rest of his mail, however. He gets excited by our response.

God says, “What else can I do for you? It is such a joy to have you a part of my plan! What do you want to know next? What do you want to do next?”

“How can I help you be the best you you can be?”

And God changes you some more. And you see where you used to be and where you are now, and you give more thanks. And God changes you even more!

It is a glorious cycle, one spiraling us toward heaven. Pretty soon, all that stuff we gave up, all that stuff we thought was so important, is simply scattered on the ground far below us, as forgettable as yesterday’s garbage.

If you don’t believe me—well, just try to fulfill Paul’s plea for a time. Six months, a year, something substantial. Make God’s word part of your life. Talk to him in prayer.

And certainly, most certainly, give up those behaviors that you know are not of his will. We have a short word for those behaviors: sin. Stop sinning. Ask God for the strength you need to stop.

Paul is not asking us to suffer. No, not at all. Instead, he’s asking us to live fully. We free ourselves to accept the further gifts to come, the gifts that gild our salvation.


*If you want to explore the backpack metaphor further, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a good place to start.