Tag Archives: Jesus

Life, Death, Sacrifice, & the Multiverse

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Acts 20:24 (NIV)

Over this past week Wendy and I watched the third season of the Amazon Prime original, The Man in the High Castle. Most every television or movie drama hinges on some kind of threat to life. Someone’s life is in danger. Someone is trying to escape those who seek to end his or her life. Someone’s life had been taken and the protagonist must find out who did it before more people die. In The Man in the High Castle the writers throw in the twist of the multi-verse, the theory that parallel realities exist and people known as “travelers” can slip between them. Nevertheless, seeking to stay alive and striving to avoid the threat of death don’t change. They are always the common themes.

As I read today’s chapter, the themes of death and life are just as prevalent as they weave themselves through Paul’s story. The Jews plan another attempt to assassinate Paul, so he changes his travel arrangements. A boy falls from a third-story window and dies, but Paul miraculously brings the boy back to life. Paul then declares to the elders of the believers at Ephesus that he will not see them again on this earthly journey. Even though Holy Spirit has continually revealed that prison and persecution await, Paul is ready to face it: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”

Here we have yet a different twist on the theme of life and death: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher purpose. Paul has faithfully followed the footsteps of Jesus. Self-sacrifice is the way of Jesus:

  • “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • [Jesus] said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself wrestling with the themes of life, death, and self-sacrifice. In a relatively safe midwest American existence the threat of death is incredibly low. The odds for a long and relatively easy life are incredibly high. So, what does the way of Jesus, the way of self-sacrifice mean for me on this journey? In a culture that values a “better life” as defined by the acquisition of things and the accumulation of bucket list experiences, what does it mean to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow? I live in a completely different reality that Paul, Luke, and the Ephesus elders. I know what self-sacrifice looked like for Paul, but what about me in this place, in this century, in this reality?

Monday morning. More questions than answers. I’m gonna keep wrestling with this one.

Have a good week my friend.

Truth About Trouble

As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.
Acts 17:10 (NIV)

Trouble in the water, trouble in the air
Go all the way to the other side of the world, you’ll find trouble there
Revolution even ain’t no solution for trouble

Trouble
Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin’ but trouble

-Bob Dylan, Trouble, 1989 (Shot of Love)

These are the lyrics from the song that flitted into my brain as I read today’s chapter. That’s the way my right-brain works. It connects events I’m experiencing or what I’m reading with an appropriate theme song from memory. I know. Weird.

The book of Acts is the story of how the Jesus movement explosively expanded in the decades following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Whenever a company, organization, or movement expands rapidly there are certain inflection points at which a major shift occurs in perception and reaction towards that expansion. We saw one a few chapters back when the Jesus Movement broke through the borders of its Jewish roots.

In today’s chapter, we’re following Paul, Silas, and Timothy on a journey through Greece. As always, the goal of their journey is to proclaim the Message of Jesus to those who’ve probably never heard it. They have a standard game-plan which is to start in the local Jewish synagogue where Paul uses his steel-trap knowledge of the Law and Prophets to explain to the Jews that the Messiah is not who they think He is. He’s not some human conqueror who would show up with an army to wipe out Rome and set up an earthly Kingdom. Rather, Paul argued, the prophets describe a suffering servant who would be sacrificed for humanity, then raised from the dead to declare victory over death, not Rome.

While Paul’s preaching had gotten him in trouble before, in today’s chapter we see that trouble begins following him. Locals aren’t content to simply drive Paul and his posse from the city, now his detractors are following him, and bringing trouble with them. Trouble in Thessalonica drives Paul to Berea, but Jews from Thessalonica arrive to stir up trouble for Paul in Berea, which drives Paul to Athens.

What strikes me in the circumstances is how trouble, rather than thwarting God’s plan, actually advances it. How long would Paul have stayed in the Thessalonica if everything had been peaceful? How long would it have taken him to move on to Berea? And, would Paul have even made the long journey Athens had it not been for trouble?

Along this Life journey I’ve encountered periods of trouble when daily existence is accompanied by emotional stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, unwarranted fear, and the like. It’s easy for me to obsess about the troubles I’m experiencing. It’s also easy for me to feel that only doom and gloom will be the outcome. Today’s chapter is a good reminder for me to stop obsessing about the trouble, and start looking for where God might be using the trouble to propel and advance His purposes for me.

The very next track after Trouble on Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love LP is Every Grain of Sand which contains this lyric:

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Sometimes trouble propels me toward the place the Master’s hand is guiding me if I’m willing to open my eyes to see it.

Have a great day, my friend.

Organism and Organization

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….”
Acts 13:2 (NIV)

For anyone who is interested in how organizations and human systems grow and function, the book of Acts provides some fascinating insights. The Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprung was a rigidly structured religious system based on  tribes, families, and descent (thus all the endless lists of genealogies). Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and offer sacrifices. Only members of the Levite clan could work in the Temple. If you were a woman or you weren’t genetically connected to the Jewish tribe, then you were always held a lower class position. This was the centuries old system that the first believers were raised in. It’s all they knew.

Within weeks of Jesus’ ascension the “new” system turned everything these believers had once known on its head. Thousands upon thousands of people became believers. And it wasn’t just people from the Jewish tribe, but people from every walk of life. Holy Spirit power poured out on everybody regardless of gender, tribe, class, age, nationality, socio-economic position, or education. Not only was the movement organically growing exponentially, but everyone had a role to play. Everyone had a spiritual gift with which to contribute to the good of the whole. Read between the lines of Acts and you can feel the heady mess that Jesus’ followers had on their hands.

In today’s chapter there’s a little hint of this reality. Barnabas had been among the first believers, but certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ original twelve. We find Barnabas in the town of Antioch where he seems to have some position of leadership along with guys named Simeon (Wait a minute. Who!?) and Lucius (What?!) and a dude named Manaen (Who is that?!) whose claim to local fame was having been the foster brother of Herod Antipas when he was a kid. Notice that Saul (Yes, that Saul, the one we know as the Apostle Paul) is named last on the list.

Welcome to the Jesus movement, the early church, where groups of believers sprung up everywhere out of nowhere and people you never heard of are suddenly leading local groups of Jesus’ followers.

This group in Antioch is worshipping and a person with the gift of prophecy gives Holy Spirit direction that Barnabas and Saul need to go on a journey to take the good news about Jesus to other towns. Notice that this sending didn’t come from the central authority, The Twelve, in Jerusalem. There was no committee formed, no delegation sent from Antioch to petition approval from the leadership in Jerusalem. Holy Spirit spoke direct to some dudes we’ve never heard of telling Barnabas and Saul to go. The dudes we’ve never heard of laid hands on Barnabas and Saul because they had the authority of Holy Spirit. It is an organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying system.

And, it was messy.

It fascinates me to look at this organism of the early Jesus movement and then look at the denominations that make up most of the Christian churches in the world. When I look at denominations from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, and Assemblies of God with their hierarchical org charts, their strict rules about who can do what, their educational systems, and their religious hoops it reminds me more of the old Jewish system from which Jesus freed the early believers.

In the book of Acts we witness the early church struggling to create systems to keep up with all that Holy Spirit was doing. An organization evolved and structures were clearly put into place. We as humans need structure and organization in order for things to work well. At the same time, what differentiated the early Jesus movement was that Holy Spirit was given free reign to work in and through everyone just as God designed the body of Christ to work. Along my journey I’ve observed that we always seem to put Holy Spirit back into the well ordered boxes of our human systems and organizational structures. When the Body of Christ is no longer allowed to be the organism it was designed to me and it is forced into rigid human organizational structures, it’s like putting a leash on Holy Spirit. Explosive, dunamis (the Greek word from which we get “dynamite”) power Jesus unleashed at Pentecost is reduced to a safe, child-proof sparkler.

There is a need for structure and organization, but I believe that we need to unleash Holy Spirit and rediscover the organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying organism the Body of Christ was created to be.

Outside of the Lines

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Acts 9:10 (NIV)

I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak in me. Working inside of large institutions typically brings it out though I don’t have a lot of examples to share because I’ve never been able to work well inside of large institutions. I’m allergic to bureaucracy. I believe God made me to work best from the outside in.

I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday when God first called me. “You will proclaim my word,” was the simple message I received. I was just naive enough, and just maverick enough not to ask questions about how. I just figured I was meant to start immediately. I delivered my first message just two months later, and within a year I was part of a team of young people traveling the state each week and speaking about Jesus wherever I was given opportunity.

As I read through the book of Acts, I’m continually struck by how the body of Christ expanded. My maverick heart immediately recognizes that it didn’t happen institutionally. In today’s chapter Jesus dramatically calls Saul, a man eager to be Jesus’ greatest enemy. Remember when Jesus said, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you?” Yeah, Jesus did that with Saul.

Then Jesus calls on a man named Ananias. We don’t know anything about Ananias. We don’t know his background, where he came from,  or how he became a follower of Jesus. His name was quite common in that day. It’s like God choosing a guy named John Smith. Ananias was just a guy in Damascus sitting at home praying. He wasn’t one of “The Twelve.” He wasn’t in Jerusalem where the leaders of Jesus’ movement were headquartered and deciding things. Out of the blue this nobody in Damascus gets tapped by Jesus to heal the man who was His self-proclaimed worst enemy. His name only comes up one more time in the Great Story.

From a leadership perspective, I love what Jesus is doing. He isn’t confining the work of His movement to be channeled only through his chosen leader, Peter, and the other eleven proteges. Jesus is expanding the work through everyone who believes and follows. Holy Spirit is filling everyone. Spiritual gifts are being distributed to everyone; Even an unsuspecting, common man named Ananias sitting at home in Damascus praying.

Jesus isn’t creating an institution. He’s creating an organism just like He did back in the opening chapters of Genesis. He’s creating a complex living body made up of millions of individual cells each called on to do their individual part for the whole, that it may accomplish its purpose of love and salvation.

This morning I’m sitting in my hotel room getting ready to go work with a client, who happens to be a large, global corporation. Like I said, I work best from the outside in. It’s how God made me. I’m sitting here thinking about the stories of an angry man named Saul and a common man named Ananias. I love that Jesus works outside the lines. I love that He’s not a God of bureaucracy but a God of living, breathing, creative power and beauty. That’s the Jesus I know. That’s the Jesus who called to me when I was 14 and still inspires me almost 40 years later. That’s the Jesus this maverick will follow each day of this earthly life (and then into eternity).

 

Explosion Begets Expansion

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Acts 8:1 (NIV)

In the past week the world has watched as the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence have forced thousands of people to flee their homes and communities to seek higher ground. The news has been dotted with interviews of individuals who have owned property along the beautiful Carolina coast for many years, but who now say they’ve had enough.

As a follower of Jesus, seeking to live with purpose, I have always determined that I want to be where God wants me to be doing what God wants me to be doing. This morning I find myself recounting three very distinct moments in my life when circumstances outside of my control put me in such uncomfortable predicaments that I was compelled to make vocational choices that moved me and my family to different places. In retrospect, I can see that each of those moves led me to where I was supposed to be.

Looking back along my Life journey and reading through the Great Story, I recognize that sometimes it takes an uncomfortable, sometimes explosive, change in circumstances to force a person to move. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers and ended up in Egypt, where decades later he would save his entire family from dying of famine. David was forced into the wilderness to live as a mercenary, where he would learn the very leadership lessons that prepared him for the throne. Daniel was taken captive to Babylon where he was used by God in the life of Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus experienced the ultimate example of circumstance conspiring to lead Him to a gruesome yet purposeful death, making salvation available to us all. After the resurrection, Jesus tells his right-hand man, Peter, to expect the same:

When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” [emphasis added]

The resurrected Jesus went on to tell his followers to take His story, their story, to “Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world.” As we approach today’s chapter we find Jesus’ followers still hangin’ with their homies in Jerusalem. The Temple’s religious authorities both tried and executed Stephen in yesterday’s chapter. Now the Sanhedrin decides to snuff out this pesky Jesus movement once and for all. As the persecution against Jesus’ followers breaks out the followers of Jesus scatter to…wait for it…Judea and Samaria! It was an explosion of persecution that forced Jesus followers to move to the very places Jesus had always purposed for them to be.

This morning in the quiet I’m preparing for a message I have to deliver to my local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday. It so happens to be on this very topic from this very book. “Explosion Begets Expansion” is my theme, and today’s chapter could easily be Exhibit A. Sometimes explosive or uncomfortable circumstances flood our lives and force us to move where we would otherwise not have been, only to find out we end up exactly where we were supposed to be all along.

Not Bricks and Mortar, but Flesh and Blood

“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.

Waypoints and Wisdom

But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.
Acts 3:18 (NIV)

There are some lessons of life and wisdom that I’ve observed are only learned along certain stretches of life’s road. As Taylor, Madison and Suzanna traverse their twenties I’m watching them grow, experience particular waypoints in life, and learn the lessons that come along during this particular stretch of the journey. Watching them, I remember learning some of the same lessons.

Some of those lessons were things that, in retrospect, things my parents had tried to help me recognize, teach me, and get me to learn earlier in my journey. I wasn’t there yet. Eventually, I recognized the lessons, learned them, and incorporated their wisdom in my on-going journey.

In today’s chapter, we find Peter and John entering the Temple in Jerusalem. Through the power of Christ, they heal a crippled man which starts a large commotion. As the crowds gather, Peter addresses the crowd. Amidst the message, Peter shares about the suffering and death of Jesus, then proclaims, “But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.”

Wait a minute. Back the truck up.

This is the same Peter who seemed always confused when Jesus suggested the notion He must suffer. This is the same Peter who pushed back at Jesus when confronted with Jesus’ prediction that He would be taken and crucified while his followers stood by. This is the same Peter who was convinced that Jesus would be an Earthly King and he, Peter, would be Jesus’ powerful Chief of Staff.

Now, on this side of the climactic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter appears to get what Jesus had been teaching all along. Now Peter realizes that he’d been picking an choosing the prophetic messages he wanted to listen to, while conveniently ignoring prophetic passages such as Isaiah 52-53 and the 22nd Psalm; Passages which clearly describe Messiah as sacrificial lamb to suffer and be slaughtered.

This morning I’m reminded that this journey is a process. I can see certain truths and understand particular wisdom with so much clarity from my current waypoint on life’s road. It reminds me to have grace and patience with those who are coming up behind me in the journey. It reminds me of the incredible impact I can yet have on the road ahead. It reminds me again, just as I mentioned in my post on Monday, to be patient for those things I yet long for. They are at a waypoint just ahead.

I just have to keep pressing on.