These are slides and referenced source material for a message I’m delivering this morning.
Quick Note to my subscribers: Due to some scheduling challenges this week, I may not be posting my regular chapter-a-day regularly week. Feel free to browse the archive for a fix if you wish. Cheers!
This past week I delivered a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In the message, I referenced John 8:31-32 which contains one of the most well-known statements Jesus ever made: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That famous statement, however, is part of an if/then statement, which means that the statement by itself will always be out of context.
Jesus was speaking to a group of believers to whom Jesus was differentiating from those who were disciples.
I was raised to be a believer in Jesus but later I became a disciple of Jesus. Looking back on my experience and observations of growing as a disciple of Jesus for over 40 years, I penned the following list contrasting the two. I was asked by many to make this publicly available. Here it is:
• A believer makes a mental agreement that Jesus was who He said He was and that the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament are both true and worthwhile.
• A disciple makes a life-long decision to willingly and obediently think, speak, and act in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.
• A believer goes to church on Sunday, at least occasionally, because it is expected.
• A disciple attends worship regularly out of a desire to corporately worship God and make meaningful, relational life connections with other disciples.
• A believer brings their Bible to church to follow along with the preacher (and because it looks good to have it with you).
• A disciple devours the Bible continuously as spiritual nourishment and Life sustenance.
• A believer prays in church on Sunday, says the Lord’s Prayer, prays over meals, and prays in time of need.
• A disciple acknowledges Holy Spirit’s indwelling and God’s ever-presence, making everyday life an ongoing conversation with God.
• A believer “fellowships” on Sunday mornings before & after service with other believers.
• A disciple lives everyday life growing in increasingly intimate relationships with fellow disciples: loving one another, confessing to one another, forgiving one another, admonishing one another, building up one another, bearing one another’s burdens, being generous with one another, and comforting one another.
• A believer seeks assurance of entrance to heaven after death.
• A disciple seeks to die to self each day in order to be a citizen and ambassador of heaven on earth.
• A believer excuses their lack of knowledge, education, training, standing, goodness, holiness, purity, and/or godliness, in order to justify leaving the work of ministry to paid professionals on staff of the local institutional church.
• A disciple receives God’s grace, forgiveness, and indwelling, translating it into an embrace of the spiritual reality that Jesus made every follower a minister of the Gospel of Christ at every moment of every day no matter one’s age, gender, education, ability, sinfulness, or past failures.
• A believer gives God a place in their lives.
• A disciple surrenders their life to God in response to the life that His Son gave for them.
• A believer comes to the bricks-and-mortar church (or watches the YouTube feed) to pay God a visit.
• A disciple is the flesh-and-blood church taking God’s love & presence to every person with whom they visit.
If you’d like to watch the entire message:
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:14 (NIV)
Jesus’ greatest human enemy was organized institutional religion. Rome may have carried out the execution, but when you study Jesus’ story it is abundantly clear that the conspiracy to get rid of Him begins with the religious authorities.
Early in my journey as a follower of Jesus, I observed the stark difference between being a follower of Jesus and being a member of one of the human institutions that globally operate in and around His name. Because of this, I have carefully avoided getting involved in said institutions, organizations, or denominations. My journey has led me to worship in and serve among local gatherings of Jesus’ followers from a broad range of institutional persuasions. I’ve always landed where I was led and where I was welcome. In every one, no matter what the denominational persuasion, I observed these common elements:
Distant human “authorities” who were ignorant and out-of-touch with the local believers. In many cases, the “leaders” of the institution were academic, professional administrators whose personal beliefs were opposite of the grassroots people over whom they claimed authority.
Individuals who care more about denominational legalities than being a follower of Jesus. At least three times in my life journey I was hired by a local church to serve in a pastoral capacity only to have a well-meaning legalist blow a gasket a year later when it was realized that I didn’t jump through the hoops to “officially” become a member of the church who hired me to lead them. In one case, a congregational meeting had to be called for me to request that the church I was leading accept me as a member and have a congregational vote as to whether they would accept me as a member. I’m glad to say I passed the test. What a waste of time.
I realize that I’m on a bit of a rant here, but as I read Jesus’ teaching in today’s chapter I find Jesus on a similar rant. First He speaks of those who hypocritically judge others. He then cuts through all the religious red tape of His own religion and sums up all of the Law and teaching of the Prophets in one golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Next, Jesus makes the rather audacious statement: “the gate that leads to Life is small, the road that leads to Life is narrow, and few people find it.” Every time I read this statement I ponder the possibility that one can be a “member” of a church and completely miss the gate and road that Jesus said leads to Life. I then wonder how many of the millions of church members around the globe never find the gate.
Jesus then warns His followers regarding false prophets who have all the trappings of being good religious people but who have completely self-seeking motives. He tells His followers to be wise and discerning. What kind of spiritual fruit do their lives produce? Elsewhere Jesus will teach that what’s inside a person eventually comes out.
Jesus wraps up his message on the hill by creating a contrast between those who are true followers and those who are false followers. The simple difference? True followers hear Jesus’ words and put His teachings into practice in their everyday lives. The false followers call Him “Lord,” they go to church, they do their religious duties, and they hear His words. Then they leave church and ignore His teaching in their everyday lives and relationships.
In a bit of synchronicity, I left this morning’s post half-finished in order to go downstairs and have breakfast with Wendy. She read me this devotional thought from Richard Rohr:
“We have often substituted being literal with being serious and they are not the same! Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text. Willful people use Scripture literally when it serves their purposes and they use it figuratively when it gets in the way of their cultural biases. Willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”
In the quiet this morning, I’m taking a good, hard look at my own spiritual journey and my own heart and life. I have willfully chosen to avoid entanglements in human religious institutions and have purposed to willingly allow Jesus’ teachings to continually change the way I think, speak, act, and relate to others in my own circles of influence. I’m definitely not perfect. I have no justification for judging others no matter what I might observe. My sole responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to hear His words “and put them into practice.”
God, help me to do so again this day. Thanks, in advance, for your forgiveness. May I be equally forgiving of those who offend me, just as you have asked me to do.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Colossians 2:6-7 (NIV)
Last summer Wendy and I had five fire bushes planted at the back of our yard. As the hot, dry summer wore on the bushes struggled for life. Despite the fact that I gave them water and they had plenty of sunlight, they slowly withered and died. Fortunately, all of our other landscaping, which had been planted two years earlier, made it through the drought and is full of life this spring.
It’s been a beautifully warm, wet spring this year and I’ve been mowing my lawn twice a week. As I passed by the dead bushes at the back of our yard on Saturday, I happened to bump a couple of them with the edge of the mower. I noticed that they quite easily bent and seemed to pull up from the ground. They had no depth of root structure grounding them.
I thought of those bushes as I read this morning’s chapter. Paul instructs the spiritually immature believers in Colossae that having made a decision to follow Jesus was just the beginning of their spiritual journey. They are spiritual saplings, newly planted. Now, it’s time to put down deep spiritual roots which only happens slowly, over time. It is the continual processing of Word and Light and Spirit and relationship in spiritual photosynthesis leading to a chain reaction of praise and gratitude which perpetuates the cycle.
In the past few week’s I’ve written about an observation I’ve had over the years. The brands of Jesus’ followers with whom I’ve been associated most of my life have had a penchant for focusing on getting people “saved” like a nursery of seedlings dropped into a tiny pot of loose soil and sprinkled with water. When life begins to scorch, or the storms of circumstance blow in like a midwest thunderstorm, there are no spiritual roots. The seedlings wither.
This morning I find myself meditating on the long, slow, gradual process of growing deep spiritual roots. It’s not a quick fix. It requires time, attention, and a certain amount of discipline. It goes against the grain of a culture that worships the quick, simple, and easy. But, it’s good. The deeper my roots, the more capable I found myself to weather the unpredictable ebb and flow of both drought and storms in life.
Dig deep. Build up. Strengthen faith. Let gratitude flow.
Have a great week, my friend.
“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
Acts 12:15 (NIV)
Just over a decade ago there was an original series that premiered on the TNT network. It was called Saving Grace. Wendy and I absolutely loved it. The show centered around a very hard, broken, and flawed police detective named Grace who was expertly played by Holly Hunter. Grace’s life was all sorts of messed up, and in the opening episode we find her on the verge of suicide. That’s when Earl shows up. The scraggly, dumpy-looking Earl is actually an angel sent to help save Grace from herself, hence the title of the show. The show ran for four seasons.
Across the Great Story there are numerous times that angels enter the narrative. Certainly in the life of Jesus and throughout the book of Acts angels play an active role, as in today’s chapter. Dr. Luke describes Peter’s imprisonment by Herod and his being shackled continually between four armed guards. In the middle of the night an angel arrives to arrange for Peter’s “Great Escape.” Peter is rescued and returns to where the fellow believers are staying.
I love that Luke adds the detail about a servant girl named Rhoda who comes to the door when Peter arrives and knocks. The servant girl is so excited to see Peter that she runs to tell the household forgetting to actually unlock the door and let Peter inside. Upon telling the believers that Peter is outside at the door, they insist she is out of her mind, saying “It must be his angel.”
The Greek word Luke used in describing the event was atou which is correctly translated as a personal, possessive pronoun. It is clear that the believers understood that Peter had a personal angel assigned to him, and this verse is among the passages that have led to the popular belief that each of us has a “guardian angel.” (Matt 8:10 and Heb 1:14 are two others).
For the record, I do believe in angels even though I don’t have a great story like Peter’s (which I’m okay with, btw). I find it interesting that Hollywood regularly uses the humorous device of choosing a very unangelic presence when depicting angels. I think both of the scraggly Earl in Saving Grace and the elderly, diminutive Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.
This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about angels. When writing about “fallen angels,” otherwise known as demons, C.S. Lewis wisely wrote that we can make one of two foolish mistakes. One is to waste time thinking too much about them. The second, Lewis said, is to be dismissive of them altogether. I’ve always agreed with Lewis on this, and so I don’t think too much about angels and demons except when I encounter a chapter like today’s. So, this morning I’m allowing myself some creative fun with the notion that every one does have a guardian angel and how my angel might be personified.
I think his name is probably Walter.
By the way, Saving Grace is available to rent through Amazon Prime.
Have a great day, everyone.
“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.”
Acts 7:48 (NIV)
I remember going to church as a kid and being taught a certain reverence for the sanctuary of our church. It was a classically designed sanctuary with an altar that sat on a dais at the back. Over the altar hung a giant cross and from the bottom of the cross hung an old-style lamp which was “the eternal flame.” Just in front of the altar was a lectern that sat on one side from which the scripture readings and announcement were made. On the opposite side was the pulpit which was larger, and stood higher.
As children we were taught that this santuary was special. This was where you went to worship God on Sunday. There was sacredness attached to the room, the altar, and the pulpit. You were to be quiet when you were in there. No running. No playing. Don’t go near the altar unless Reverend Washington is up there serving communion.
After I became a believer and began reading God’s Message for myself, I came to realize that the entire notion of a “sacred” church building was never a part of Jesus’ paradigm. Jesus never asked his followers to build buildings. Quite the opposite. Jesus said, “I will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.” With His death, resurrection, and the subsequent pouring out of Holy Spirit, Jesus did away with the old notion that there was a physical building that would be the center of worship. The “church” Jesus came to build is not made of bricks and mortar, but of flesh and blood.
“A time is coming,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
In today’s chapter one of Jesus’ early followers, a man named Stephen, is dragged before the Jewish religious authority, called the Sanhedrin, in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the same council who convicted Jesus and gave Him a death sentence just weeks earlier. Stephen, in his defense, walks the religious leaders through the Great Story from Abraham to Joseph to Moses to the Kings and to the prophets. He tells of Solomon building the Temple where he, himself, was now standing. Stephen then says to religious authorities:
“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’”
This morning I’m thinking about sacred spaces, and enjoying the memory of being a kid and finding out that the “eternal flame” that hung over our church’s altar was simply a 40 watt light bulb that sometimes burnt out and had to be replaced by the custodian.
Having a physical building for believers to gather, worship, and create community is a great thing. I just never want to lose sight of the truth that Jesus never intended “the church” to be a building down the street. When Holy Spirit indwells me as a believer my flesh and blood becomes “the church” because God is within me, one with my spirit. I am sacred space. “Don’t you know,” Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” So, “the church” is wherever I happen to be. It’s wherever two or more believers gather together.
I don’t go to church. I am the church.
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14
One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.
Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.
Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.
The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.
Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.
What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”
Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Acts 11:2-3 (NSRV)
I love Dr. Seuss. I find the illustrations, the rhymes, and the created words even more entertaining as an adult than I did as a kid. As an adult, I also have an even greater appreciation for the lessons that Dr. Seuss taught us about human, though he did it through the most creative of fantastical creatures.
One of my favorites as both a kid and an adult is the story of The Sneetches. Some of the big yellow creatures had stars on their tummies, and some did not. What follows is a zany study of how we tend to discriminate through our prejudices and will go to great lengths to belong with the crowd.
The Sneetches came to mind this morning as I read about Peter’s return to Jerusalem from the house of Cornelius. The early followers of Jesus were an almost exclusively Jewish sect. And, like the star on a Sneetches tummy, the physical determination of whether you “belonged” to the Jewish faith as a man of that day was whether your penis was circumcised and the foreskin ritually removed. The practice went all the way back to Abraham and the Jews took great pride in having this physical evidence of their “belonging” to the Jewish faith.
So, when Peter returns from the house of Cornelius the non-Jew he is confronted by the Jewish followers of Jesus asking why he ate with the unclean, uncircumcised, lower class, dirty, rotten, don’t belong, non-Jewish Gentiles. The very question smacked of prejudice and socio-arrogance. I find it interesting that Dr. Luke saw fit to repeat Peter’s story in exacting detail rather than writing, “Peter told them what had happened.” A writer repeats things when they are important, and I believe Luke repeated the story he had just written because this was a big deal. The times they were a changin’. Think of telling southern Klu Klux Klan members a century ago that they had to start accepting African-Americans into their membership. This was going to shake things up in a big way.
But, God gave this experience to Peter who was the unquestioned spiritual leader of their faith and who had been placed into leadership by Jesus. This was a top down policy shift, and Luke records that the initial response of the believers in Jerusalem was acceptance. We know from other sources, however, that it wouldn’t be a peacefully and universally accepted paradigm shift.
In the end of Dr. Seuss’ tale of The Sneetches, the Sneetches with stars and the Sneetches without stars get so mixed up that it ceases to be relevant. It’s hard for us to relate to how radical it was for God to command Peter and the early Jewish followers to love non-Jewish Gentiles and accept them into the fold. People are people, however, and we have our own prejudices and forms of socio-arrogance.
Today is another good reminder for me to acknowledge my prejudices, and to let them go.
“But no, my people wouldn’t listen.
Israel did not want me around.”
Psalm 81:11 (NLT)
Wendy and I were recently out with a rather large group of people. At the table was a friend I don’t see often with whom I’ve enjoyed conversation about our respective spiritual journeys. We took the opportunity to strike out on wonderful conversation about a number of spiritual topics. As we did, a few others at the table joined along in the conversation.
I was rather taken back when another person in our party overheard our conversation and playfully expressed equal amazement that we would talk about such matters at this social gathering. Subsequently, this same person attempted to change the subject of our conversation two different times.
I have found two different types of individuals who behave as my uncomfortable friend at the table. One is the person who is described like Israel in today’s psalm. This person is just doesn’t want God, or conversation about God, around any where at any time. The other type of individual is not uncomfortable with things spiritual as long as they are kept well contained within a particular compartment of their lives (e.g. within the church building on Sunday morning).
I am reminded this morning of those who don’t want God around. I was not angered by our conversation-changing friend. I was just saddened at whatever obstacle they have lodged in their heart and mind. Today, I’m praying for that person and all who don’t want God around. I’m also striving to be the kind of man who might love such a person well enough to earn the relational equity necessary to engage him or her in a conversation that won’t create discomfort.