Tag Archives: Mission

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

Prisoner of Whom?

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles….
Ephesians 3:1 (NIV)

One’s perspective makes all the difference.

Having just journeyed through the season of Lent, I was reminded time and time again that Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, suffering and execution had been predicted. Jesus knew what was going to happen, and He made it clear to His followers. Despite this foreknowledge of what was to happen, Luke writes the Jesus “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (9:51)

Jesus wasn’t the victim. He was driving the events that happened. He was on a mission.

As I’ve been studying the events surrounding Paul in the Book of Acts, there is a very clear parallel to Jesus’ story. Paul was a citizen of Rome. It was a rare status that afforded him all sorts of privileges. When Paul was arrested and put on trial, he could have easily gotten off. Instead he appealed his case to Caesar assuring that he would be taken prisoner to Rome. As he waited for his trial before the leader of the Roman Empire, he wrote letters. Ephesians is one of them.

I couldn’t help but notice in today’s chapter that Paul doesn’t call  himself a “prisoner of Rome,” but rather a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Paul, like Jesus whom he followed, does not see himself as a victim of circumstances, but a servant of Christ. He’s not a victim. He’s on a mission. There is no moaning about his imprisonment. He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be discouraged by his sufferings. The entire chapter is focused on God’s eternal, cosmic, Spirit-ual, Level 4 power:

  • God’s grace given me through the working of his power” (vs. 7)
  • boundless riches of Christ” (vs. 8)
  • God, who created all things” (vs. 9)
  • the manifold wisdom of God” (vs. 10)
  • “[God] from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (vs. 15)
  • out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit” (vs. 16)
  • how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (vs. 18)
  • this love that surpasses knowledge” (vs. 19)
  • him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (vs. 20)

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about the perspective with which I approach my own circumstances. Am I walking this life journey as a person who happens to claim to be a follower of Jesus but then lives my life as if I’m a victim of random earthly circumstance? Or, am I on a mission, as well? Like Jesus, like Paul, is my faith-journey propelling me to a larger purpose and mission rooted in Level 4 power and purpose?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it….”

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 3)

Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
Acts 26:32 (NIV)

What do I believe in so strongly that I would be willingly imprisoned for it?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read today’s chapter which Chronicles Paul’s trial before Porcius Festus, King Agrippa II, and Agrippa’s sister, Bernice. One of the reasons the Roman Empire was so successful at occupying so much of the world for so long was that they found a way to occupy a region while allowing the local ruling families to continue to have certain power and jurisdiction. In this hearing, Paul is allowed to make his defense before both the local monarch, Agrippa II, and the Roman Procurator who represented Rome’s interest in the area.

Paul wastes no time in making his appeal to Agrippa who had life-long knowledge of Judaism, its laws, and the various sects that brokered for power within the Temple system. Festus may not have had very limited knowledge of what it meant for Paul to have been raised a strict, law-abiding Pharisee. Agrippa, on the other hand, could fully understand the weight of Paul’s testimony and defense. Sure enough, Festus appears baffled by it all and thinks Paul’s whole story crazy. Paul then calls on Agrippa’s belief in the prophets and attempts to convince the king of Jesus’ Message.

Today’s chapter ends with Festus and Agrippa agreeing that Paul could have been released had he not appealed to Caesar. But Paul knew his fate when he made his appeal. He knew what he was doing. He would write to the believers in Ephesus, “I am an Ambassador in chains.”

To the believers in Philippi he wrote:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

To the believers in Colossae he wrote:

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Once again, as I read all of the events of Paul’s choices, his arrest, and his trials, I don’t find him to be a victim. I find Paul to be a man on a personal mission of his own choosing. He’s sacrificing his own personal freedom and well-being to advance Jesus’ Message .

Which brings me back to the question spinning around in my spirit in the quiet this morning:  What do I believe in so strongly that I would be willingly imprisoned for it?

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 1)

Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.
Acts 24:24 (NIV)

I and my team at work have had many different business engagements over the years with a number of very different companies. I’m glad to say that our team has had several on-going engagements with clients that have lasted 15, 20, and even 25 years and counting. Others engagements have been relatively small projects that lasted a week or a month. The difference between a long engagement and a short one is often dependent the level of person we’re working with within the organization.

If we’re working with the CEO and/or senior executives of a client company, we have the opportunity to positively influence the client’s entire operation along with the  health and well-being of the customer experience for decades. A middle manager, on the other hand, typically has limited means and influence. They usually bring us in for a moment in time to treat a symptom in their service delivery system.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul in the midst of a tectonic shift in his ministry. For years he has traveled the Roman Empire in Judea, Asia Minor, and Greece. He’s been among the people. He’s expanded the number of believers and followers of Jesus. He’s organized them into local groups. He’s provided for himself by keeping his day job as a maker of tents. Paul has been on a grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground, non-stop mission among the common, everyday people in the streets. Now, like Jesus before him, Paul finds himself in the justice system of the Roman Empire being accused by the leaders of the Hebrew religion who want him dead. Unlike Jesus, Paul is a citizen of Rome, and that affords him the ability to appeal his case all the way to Caesar himself.

The first trial Paul faces against the religious leadership of the Jews is before the Roman Procurator, Antonius Felix, who had authority over Judea. Felix, like many Roman regional authorities of the time, was a corrupt official with a reputation for both cruelty and debauchery. The trial, as recorded in today’s chapter, should have ended with Paul’s release. The Jewish leaders had no accusation that should have stood up in Roman court. They did not produce a single corroborating witness willing to be cross-examined, and they had no evidence. Paul’s defense was persuasive and, as a Roman citizen, he should have been released immediately. Felix, however, was in a tough spot politically.

One of the top responsibilities of Roman provincial leadership was keeping the peace. The Jewish leaders bringing charges against Paul had tremendous political and social influence, and Felix knew it. His predecessor, Ventidus Cumanus, failed to respond to a racially motivated murder of a Jew in Samaria. The result was riots and uprising. Cumanus was held responsible by Caesar and exiled. Felix wants to avoid this fate so he decides to appease the Jewish leaders by keeping Paul in prison. But the Jesus movement has been gaining popularity, as well. Tens of thousands of people had become believers and Paul is one of their leaders. So, Felix can’t just have him killed without potentially igniting a backlash.

The compromise Felix came up with was to keep Paul under a relatively comfortable house arrest within the palace. For two years Felix and his wife (the daughter of Herod Agrippa) regularly meet with Paul to have lengthy discussions. Felix, being a corrupt Roman official, is hoping Paul will offer him a bribe to let him go. Paul is on a very different mission, however. He could have easily stolen Peter’s line: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but what I have I give to you.”

This morning as I read, I thought about Paul’s situation in terms of my own experience in business. For years Paul has been working with the front-line workers of the corporate Roman Empire. Now Paul finds himself invited into the executive suite. Paul has the opportunity to influence an influencer. To convert a Roman official, to even make him aware of the Message of Jesus, could have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the Empire. Paul is fulfilling the very mission Jesus spoke of to his disciples: “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18)

Convert an Ephesian shopkeeper and you change a life. Convert a Roman official and you might just change an empire (which is exactly what eventually happened two hundred years later with the Roman Emperor Constantine).

Final Words

The words of Jeremiah end here.
Jeremiah 51:64 (NIV)

Along my journey I’ve had the privilege of officiating a  host of funerals. Some of them have been family members with whom I’ve had a life-long relationship. Many have been complete strangers to me. No matter the case, I’ve always approached these meaningful events with a desire to honor the person, her/her family, and to comfort those loved ones by telling the person’s story well.

I usually start by simply meeting with the family and asking them questions. As I listen, a story begins to emerge about the deceased, what the person did with his/her life, how he/she impacted the people around them, and what his/her journey was really about. I’ve got to be honest, sometimes the story is heart-warming, and other times it is painfully tragic. Either way, there is always a story to tell.

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about this long slog through Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is the realization that we have a fairly thorough retrospective of Jeremiah’s 40 years of prophetic works from beginning to end. Jeremiah had a very specific message to convey throughout his career: Babylon was going to destroy his city of Jerusalem and take his people into exile. Then, Babylon would eventually suffer the same fate. When the former happens as prophesied, Jeremiah sends the latter message with a servant headed to Babylon. With that act, the editors tell us that they are Jeremiah’s final words (though the story ends with tomorrow’s final chapter).

Jeremiah’s words were never popular. He was threatened, attacked, imprisoned, left to die, and yet he always remained “on message.” He stuck doggedly to the message God gave him. When the Babylonians showed him unusual mercy for his prophetic “support” of their invasion, Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to tell them that their turn was coming. He never backed down. He completed the job. He stuck to the mission.

This morning I’m thinking about the end of Jeremiah’s words, and it’s prompting thoughts about my own life, and my own story. Someday the responsibility will likely fall on someone to listen to my family members and to sum up my story in just a few minutes of oratory. With each day of my journey I slowly pen that story. I hope it’s not unlike Jeremiah’s: sticking to the mission, completing the course set before me. More than anything, I hope the theme of the story is love.

Discussion Question Over Appetizers

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….
Isaiah 61:1-2a (NIV)

I love “If” questions and discussion starters. For years our family used them around the table to kick-start dinner conversations…

  • If you could have dinner with three people from history, who would you choose?
  • If you were only allowed one song to sing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • If you had the power to eliminate one illness from the world, which would you eliminate?

I love “If” questions because the answers can vary so greatly from person to person, and those answers allow you to learn new things about even the closest of friends and relatives.

Having journeyed through God’s Message for many years, it is impossible to read today’s chapter and not connect it immediately to Jesus. Because the record of Jesus’ teaching indicates that He chose this passage for His inaugural sermon in His own home synagogue:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-20 (NIV)

So, Jesus,” I imagine myself saying to the young carpenter from Nazareth as we sit at the table with a glass of wine and an appetizer of freshly made pita bread and hummus. “If you could choose one passage from all of scripture to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

I don’t have to wonder what He would say, because I know of all the passages He could have chosen for that message in the Nazareth Synagogue, Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah. This was His mission statement. This was His stake in the ground. He didn’t state it as a desire, or a hope, or a goal. He declared it an indisputable fact. Jesus starts His message with Isaiah’s prophetic, messianic proclamation and then begins His sermon with: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Many people think of Jesus as a nice teacher who was eventually deified by His followers. Others think of Jesus as a kind of confused mystic who said a lot of amazing things, but might have been a little deluded. I don’t find anything confused in Jesus first recorded sermon. It was a shot across the spiritual bow. It was declarative. So much so, in fact, that it created a violent reaction among His neighbors:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

This morning I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t stumble onto the scene. Jesus didn’t just happen to be at the right place and the right time so as to fall into this teaching gig. Jesus came wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger because, from the beginning, there was a purpose. It was there when Simeon broke into song at Jesus consecration. It was there when Jesus was twelve years old and confounded the elders of Israel with His words. Good news to the poor, healing for the broken, sight to the blind, freedom to the enslaved, this was the mission from day 1.

So, Tom,” Jesus says to me over morning coffee in my office. “If you had one passage from all of God’s Message to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

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The Appeal of a Cloistered Life

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one….As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
John 17:15, 18 (NRSV)

There has always been something about monastic life that has secretly appealed to me. I like the idea of leaving everything behind to live simply and humbly in quiet devotion. Whenever I hear or read about a monastery or convent, there’s a piece of my heart that envies the brothers and sisters who lead a cloistered life.

Along my journey I have recognized that there are different types of cloistered lives. In the Roman Catholic tradition it is a very specific separation from the world as the monks or nuns live in community with one another in a sequestered space. In the Evangelical tradition I have grown up in, we also have a version of the cloistered life. Our version of it is more subtle. We separate ourselves from the world while still appearing to live in it.

Our social lives revolve around our church or Christian school. We attend Christian concerts, frequent Christian bookstores, and hang out with others in Christian coffee shops. We read Christian fiction and listen to Christian music on Christian radio stations. We decorate our homes with Christian decor and watch Christian movies and Christian television programs.  We put Christian bumper stickers on our cars. We may appear to live in the world, but the reality is that our lives are carefully, surgically separated and cloistered from it.

I cannot, however, escape the simple and direct statements Jesus made in today’s chapter. He is sending His followers into the world. He is not sending them to live in insulated, cloistered community where they will be safe, secure, and insulated. He is sending them into the world where there is darkness, danger and the threat of harm. That is why the Father’s protection is necessary.

Today, I am thinking about the cloistered life. It will likely never cease to appeal to me. It is not, however, the path to which I am called. Jesus calls me, not out of the world, but into the world where I am often thought strange, where I am regularly misunderstood, and where I routinely feel awkward and out of place. That’s the mission, however. It was the mission for Jesus, and it’s the mission that He gave to those of us who follow.

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