So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. Galatians 4:7 (NIV)
In the early stages of my spiritual journey I wandered down the path of legalism. I was never particularly comfortable with it’s straight-and-narrow streets and the authoritarian, self-appointed traffic cops on every block wearing their spit-polished Junior Holy Spirit badges. Nevertheless, I came to an understanding of why so many people find their way to that huge boulevard.
There’s a certain ease to the path of legalism. It requires little in the way of thought, meditation, grace, wisdom, or knowledge. Everything is prescribed for you in black-and-white terms and simple rules of obedience. There’s strict accountability to keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Your fellow wayfarers will, of course, watch you like a hawk, but then there are the self-appointed traffic cops to watch your every move, remind you of the rules, and threaten you with any number of heinous punishments (i.e. alienation, condemnation, damnation) should you stray from their prescribed path.
Along that stretch of the journey I met a number of individuals who had been walking the path of legalism for many years. They had given themselves over. So comfortable had they become with their enslavement to the rules that the simplest notion of grace or freedom became a fright. They reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness begging to return to slavery in Egypt. “At least we knew the rules. Life was so much easier to understand. It wasn’t so hard or so complicated.”
In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia, he finds them in a similar spot. Having received the Message of Jesus by faith when Paul was with them, they are now being told by some self-appointed traffic cops from the path of Legalism to get themselves back on the straight-and-narrow. These Officers of Legalism are demanding obedience to their list of religious rules.
In his letter Paul calls on a powerful word picture. He argues that Jesus came to make us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are, therefore, no longer slaves to be herded down the path of legalism constantly threatened with alienation, condemnation and damnation should we fail to march lock-step in accordance with the self-appointed traffic cops.
Paul argues that we are free to walk down a very different path as heirs of grace freely given, of forgiveness poured out in excess, of extravagant acceptance, and of unalterable love. Why, Paul asks, would you ever want to go back to Legalism Boulevard?
Along my journey I’ve observed that some people find the path of legalism to be easier than the path of love. Having walked that Legalism Boulevard for a block or two, a piece of me gets why people spend their entire lives on its pristine concrete between its high curbs. I found obedience to a set of well defined rules less painful than dying to myself. I found that condemning rule breakers was easier (and even felt self-righteously satisfying) than forgiving them as I have been forgiven. And, I found that following the straight-and-narrow of Legalism Boulevard was guaranteed not to twist, turn, or lead me to uncomfortable neighborhoods where people look different than me, act different than me, think differently than me, or speak differently than me. There’s a comfort in that.
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus said that the path of Life lies behind a narrow gate that’s not particularly well-marked. It’s narrow and not necessarily easy to make out because, like Frost’s poem, it’s less traveled than Legalism Boulevard. But those who ask directions will find their way there. Those who seek it out will find their way there. Those who knock on the narrow gate will find it open to them.
I’ve found it a messy and slippery path with some steep inclines and deep valleys. There have been lonely stretches where faith was required. There were some stretches I shared with companions that required humility, trust, forgiveness, teamwork, and grace to get through some of the terrain. I’ve also found myself in some foreign places that forced me to get past my fears. It hasn’t always been easy, but the further I travel on the path the more Life I’ve experienced.
I’ve never regretted leaving Legalism Boulevard. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s walking lock-step down that street to make their way down the alley. Ask about a narrow gate. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12 (NIV)
Note to my regular readers:Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts (which we just finished blogging through yesterday). In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate, so I will be making a few educated guesses myself. We begin with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia.
I’ve always had a bit of maverick in me. Maverick is a relatively contemporary word rooted historically in a south Texas lawyer by that name back in the 19th century. Given a herd of cattle as payment of the debt, Maverick the lawyer had no need for the livestock. He left the cattle unbranded and let them roam free. The name soon became synonymous with an “unbranded” individual who likes to blaze their own trails and go their own way.
Being a maverick is one way I find myself really identifying with Paul. I see it all over the place in the opening to his letter to the believers in the region of Galatia in Asia Minor where he’d traveled and established local gatherings of believers on his first mission to the region (Acts 13-14). He begins his letter to the believers there establishing his individual authority apart from the Twelve and James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem.
First, Paul reminds his readers that he received the Message from the risen Christ, not from another human being. The “Apostles” to early believers were those followers of Jesus to whom the risen Christ appeared and commissioned. Paul repeatedly placed himself in this category by stating that the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and commissioned him to share the Message. The fact that his was a singularly unique appearance and calling made Paul a maverick. While the Twelve eventually embraced Paul and his calling, they also let him do his own thing.
Paul next makes it clear to the believers in Galatia that, after the dramatic events on the road to Damascus, that he didn’t go directly to Jerusalem and present himself to the Twelve. He went off, by himself, to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. The subtext of this claim is that Paul, once again the maverick, did his own thing and went his own way apart from the Twelve.
He goes on to explain that it was three years later before he traveled to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. The Greek word Paul uses makes it clear that he was met with hospitality. Still, he specifies that it was only Peter and James. He didn’t meet the other eleven apostles.
This morning I’m reminded of the huge paradigm change Jesus introduced to those early believers. For well over a thousand years the Jewish paradigm introduced through Moses had been that “ministry” (I refer to the priestly sacrifices and duties of the tabernacle/temple) had been confined to certain people. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests. Only descendants of Levi could work in the temple. “Ministry” was restricted to the privileged few.
Among the early believers of Jesus everyone (including women, foreigners, youth, slaves, rich, poor, etc.) who believed and received the Holy Spirit received a spiritual gift to use in ministering to everyone else. Everyone was a part of the ministry.
This made way for a maverick like Paul. The Twelve and James were doing the thing Jesus called them to do down in Jerusalem and wherever. Paul had his own calling from Jesus. He blazed his own trail. If the ministry of the temple was confined, the ministry of the Message of Jesus was liberated and unlimited.
Which leads back to me. Somewhere along the line the institutional church decided to once again define and confine “ministry” to a privileged and approved few. But that was never the paradigm. Since the day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit has never been confined. The ministry of Jesus’ love through the gifts of the Spirit is the privilege and calling of every believer, even me. Which, I must admit, stirs my own maverick heart.
[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. Acts 18:26-27 (NIV)
My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying the book of Acts. It’s one of the reasons I’m journeying through it again here on my blog. Like all institutional organizations, my local gathering of believers has a traditional hierarchy and well-maintained organization. We even have an official prayer ministry and volunteers who have been trained up and will pray for those who ask for it or need it. That is an absolutely awesome thing for which I’m thankful.
In the past couple of weeks, however, something very interesting has been happening. A few weeks ago the teacher of the morning asked anyone who wanted prayer, for whatever reason, to simply stand where they were during our worship song. Those seated around anyone standing were then encouraged to stand, reach out, place a hand on that person and pray for them. Many stood and many prayed. It was beautiful.
Over the coming weeks one could see that after the morning worship there were several small pockets of believers praying over and for one another. This wasn’t some official part of the service. These weren’t official prayer ministers from the prayer ministry doing what they were trained to do by the organization. These prayers for and over one another were happening organically from among those hanging out after the service, unprompted by any leader or individual.
In today’s chapter, we meet three new individuals. First, there’s Priscilla and Aquila (interesting that even Luke references the wife before the husband). The couple were among all of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius (a well established historical event). The fact that they appear to have already been believers means that the Message of Jesus had already spread to Rome, though we have no evidence of Paul or any of the other apostles having made an official missionary journey there at that point in time.
The other individual we meet in today’s chapter is a man named Apollos, also a Jew who was a believer of Jesus. We don’t know much about his background other than what Luke provides here. From Alexandria, he’d been traveling and sharing the Message of Jesus in synagogues much as Paul had done.
The underlying message of today’s chapter is that the Message of Jesus had been unleashed. The concentric circles of the Jesus movement was spreading out further and further. This was not happening by official means led by authorized envoys of the twelve in Jerusalem. It was happening organically. The Message was being embraced and shared by the growing number of believers. Everyone was in on it, and everyone was compelled and encouraged to share the Message even if they, like Apollos, didn’t have a complete understanding.
Notice that Apollos wasn’t discouraged from what he was doing, even though there were some details he was ignorant about. Priscilla and Aquila took him in, educated him, and sent him back out with their blessing. Paul didn’t do that. Priscilla and Aquila didn’t send him to Jerusalem to be educated by Peter and the boys and receive an institutional stamp of approval. This early church was a living organism in which every individual cell was growing, multiplying, and shaking things up wherever it went.
That’s why I’m both excited and encouraged by what I’ve witnessed in my local gathering of believers in recent weeks. For centuries the Institutions of Christianity have encouraged believers to sit quietly in their pews, go about their business, and let the professional, officially trained and approved ministers do things. Suddenly, I find that everyday believers from all walks of life are rediscovering their spiritual giftedness, their personal calling to use those gifts, and Holy Spirit power that fuels and empowers both.
I hear that we have moved into a “post-Christian” and “post-Evangelical” world. Perhaps we are. Yet, from where I sit I’m witnessing something remarkable. As the old Institutional organizations wane and die, the organism is being resurrected.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Acts 6:6 (NIV)
When I became a follower of Jesus as a young person, it so happened that my sister and a handful of other young people from our mainline Protestant church had made similar decisions. Excited about what God was doing in our lives, we had some great ideas about how we could share the good news. We thought it would be cool to do a series of meetings over a weekend with live music and to invite a good speaker that people would want to hear. So, we took our idea to the pastor and educational administrator of our church. Our idea was shot down immediately.
This was the first of many run-ins I’ve had along my journey with institutional churches. Most traditional, institutional churches have been historically hierarchical (and patriarchal, as well). Authority is given from the top-down, and power is dispensed and brokered just as it was among the temple priests and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day; Just as it is in almost any large institution. My friends and I were shot down because we were just kids, our idea was not approved by the denominational institution, and the speaker we wanted, while highly educated and capable, wasn’t credentialed in our particular denomination.
The thing I find fascinating in reading through the book of Acts is this early, dynamic explosion of faith. Thousands were choosing to follow Jesus, believe His resurrection, and give everything to what had become a “movement.” But it was different than the institutional Temple where it began. The Temple divided people. There was a section for women, a section for Gentiles (non-Jews), and a section only for priests. The followers of Jesus, however, met together. Everyone met together, ate together, and prayed together whether old, young, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, or priest.
In the institutional, hierarchical Temple, only priests and approved teachers of the law had the authority to do certain things. When the Holy Spirit pours out in and through the followers of Jesus, suddenly the “unschooled, unlearned” believers began teaching and speaking with spiritual authority. Signs and wonders began to be displayed through all believers, irregardless of education, age, gender, tribe, or social standing.
In today’s chapter, a man named Stephen is described as having performed many signs and wonders. He speaks in a synagogue and, filled with Holy Spirit, argues circles around the institutional lawyers and teachers. Stephen wasn’t one of the twelve. He wasn’t an original apostle. He was just another member of the “Body” of Christ. He was simply an every day believer, filled with Holy Spirit, ministering to people whenever, wherever he could.
Last night there was a meeting at our house with brothers and sister from among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Those who sat around our dining room table are going to be teaching in the coming weeks. There were two pastors from our local gathering’s staff, but there was also a banker, a diesel mechanic, a corporate middle manager, and a small business owner. Everyday people, male and female, older and younger, classically educated and not, all together using the gifts of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Greatest Commandment so the Great Commission can be fulfilled.
Jesus’ mission was never about building or protecting an institution. It was about every day people connecting with God and loving others so that anyone and everyone can make the same connection.
A few weeks ago I was wondering exactly where my property line lay in relation to a few adjacent lots. There are metal property pins driven into the corner of each lot, but most of them have been buried over time. So, I put out a plea on Facebook for a metal detector as I figured that was what I lacked to find the pins, and a friend brought one over to me. In the process, however, another friend messaged me a link to an iPhone app. I never knew it, but my iPhone can act as a metal detector. Who knew. All along I had what I needed right in the palm of my hand.
“You don’t have enough….”
“What you really need is….”
“If only you had….”
“You’ll never, until you have….”
Along the journey through life I have come to realize that our economy and our culture is predicated on an innate sense of scarcity. A market is driven by supply and demand. If a company is building a supply of widgets that they want to sell to the masses, then they must somehow create a demand for it. The marketing and branding gurus go to work convincing us that we want that widget. We need that widget. Our lives are less fulfilled without it and life would be more comfortable, satisfying, and complete if we only had this widget.
Scarcity is the underlying belief that I am not enough and I don’t have enough. We are subtly fed this message day in and day out without us ever being aware of it. Along the way, I’ve come to the realization that it seeps out of mass media into my very soul. It affects the way I view God and my spiritual thought and belief system.
“If only I was a gifted [fill in the blank]….”
“God won’t ever be happy with me because I’m not….”
“I would feel closer to God if only I had….”
In the opening of his letter to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, Paul reminds them that they don’t lack any spiritual gift. Other teachers were trying to convince them that what they “really needed” was to be baptized by this particular teacher, or the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, or this, or that, and et cetera. Paul made it clear. You’ve got what you need. You just don’t realize it.
On this Monday morning when my soul is weary and I’m staring out at long week ahead, it is easy to feel a sense of lack. It seems that what I really need is scarce and I’m starting the week in a deficit of [fill in the blank]. It is good to be reminded that as a follower of Jesus I am blessed with “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3) God has spiritually provided all that I need. It’s time to realize it, and accept the realization.
King Solomon sent to Tyre and brought Huram, whose mother was a widow from the tribe of Naphtali and whose father was from Tyre and a skilled craftsman in bronze. Huram was filled with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge to do all kinds of bronze work. He came to King Solomon and did all the work assigned to him. 1 Kings 7:13-14 (NIV)
I come from a family of individuals skilled in construction. My great-grandfather started as a young man making small wooden dowels (used instead of nails) in the Netherlands. When he came to America he did construction and eventually owned a hardware store. My grandfather taught shop. My dad and my brothers are also skilled craftsman in their respective mediums. I, however, am not skilled when it comes to construction. I know my way around a tool chest, and I can capably handle minor repairs and things. I have learned over time, however, that when it comes to major renovations or repairs that I will save myself a lot of time and frustration by hiring a skilled craftsman.
Wendy and I have been watching our house being built, and I have been marveling at the craftsman as they ply their respective trades. I have so much respect for those who do these things well.
I thought about this as I read about Solomon searching out the best craftsman to work on the bronze for his palace and the temple. He wanted it done right, and he wanted it done well, so he found the best craftsman for the job. This same principle applies to spiritual gifts and God’s work. To each person is given certain gifts for the equipping and building up of the Body of Christ and for the work of love to we are called. When we use our respective gifts then things are done right, and done well. When we have people plugged into the wrong activities for their gifts, the result is struggle and frustration.
Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.
One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”
“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” 5 He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” 1 Samuel 3:1-5a (NLT)
I have rarely told the story of the beginning of my spiritual journey. Like Samuel, I was called by God as a young man and after sharing the story with my friend Kevin for the first time this past year, he challenged me to share it in a blog post. I have been waiting for the right time. This morning as I read about God’s calling of young Samuel and see the loose parallel, I think that this is the time. Be prepared. This will be a longer post than usual.
I was raised in a nice little neighborhood Methodist church. I like to joke that despite all that I was taught in the Methodist church, I still believed in God. Like a lot of kids in the junior high or middle school age, I experienced the crisis of trying to figure out who I was in the world. I had been “confirmed” in church at the age of 13 and my parents let me know that after being confirmed I was allowed to decide for myself whether I wanted to attend church or not. I believed in God at this point. I mentally accepted the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In retrospect, however, I didn’t have a relationship with the God in whom I said I believed.
After confirmation I stopped going to church for a while. I was a good kid. I enjoyed my junior high years, but over a short period of time there grew within me a nagging confusion about life and what it all meant. I felt depressed and sunk into full blown teen angst. Realizing that I had not been to church regularly for a while I decided to return, wondering if that might not be part of the answer. I got involved in my youth group and started to feel better about things.
In February 1981, a girl in my youth group invited me to make an hour long trip to Marshalltown with her and her dad on a Friday night to hear some guy speak. She was a senior, I was a freshman, and I had a bit of a crush on her – so of course I said “yes.” There was another friend from church going and it sounded better than anything else I might be doing on that Friday night. The speaker was part of a weekend conference at a church there Marshalltown. I listened to this guy talk about God in a way I had never, ever heard before. He spoke about faith being a living relationship with God which was something very different from the simple mental acquiescence to certain spiritual truths that I had always considered “my faith.” Jesus spoke of the eyes of your heart being opened to see the truth clearly, and that night I experienced it personally. The eyes of my heart were opened for the first time. I committed my life to following Jesus. I asked Him to come into my heart to start a personal relationship together. There was a subtle, but substantial shift in my soul. I knew I would never be the same, which has proven true to this day.
My sister, Jody, is two years older than me. Upon arriving back home late that night I shared with her what had happened to me and pretty much demanded that she go with us the following night. She did, and that night I could tell that the eyes of her heart were being opened too. At the end of the service an invitation was given to any who wanted to start a relationship with Jesus and follow Him. She went forward to pray and I was left sitting in the pew praying. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting about 4-5 pews back on the stage right side of the stage right section of pews.
At this point, let me explain that I don’t claim to have spiritual dreams and visions all the time. God may work that way with others, but I have only heard God speak to me clearly on a handful of occasions in 35 years (that’s another blog post, for another day). That cold Saturday night in February was the first time. As I sat in the pew praying, I suddenly felt like I was dreaming in deep REM sleep. In the dream I was sitting in the pew right where I was, but as I looked up toward the front of the church I saw myself standing on the platform speaking just like the guy whom we’d listened to the past two nights. “You are going to proclaim My Word,” a voice said to me. I knew it was God’s voice. Here I was, a young kid in Iowa, hearing God’s voice just like the boy Samuel heard in the temple in today’s chapter.
That was it. Dream over. I was back in my pew watching my sister praying to start her own relationship with Jesus. But, I knew what I saw and heard. It sounded so crazy at the time, but I knew that it was real. That night I went home and told my parents that God had called to me that night. Mom was folding clothes on the family room floor. Dad was laying on the couch. They were watching television. I think they must have wanted to check my pockets for hallucinogens.
“Okay God,” I remember praying shortly thereafter. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to open the doors for it to happen, because I don’t know what to do.” I began reading and studying the Bible voraciously. A few weeks later, an adult approached me at church.
“In April, we’re having a youth service,” she said. “We were wondering if you would agree to be one of the youth to share the sermon that morning.”
About eight weeks after God called to me in a dream, I preached my first message.
The following summer my parents, having seen a very distinct change in my sister and me, reaffirmed their own faith in Jesus. As a family we decided to leave our little neighborhood church and start attending another church a few blocks away. This church had a large youth group and also had a youth “Gospel Team” (think “Glee” for Christians). My sister decided to join the Gospel Team and early that fall there was a kick off concert at the church. The Gospel Team Director pulled me aside the week before the concert and asked me if I’d be willing to share my story during the concert. I agreed and during a break in the concert I shared the story about how I decided to become a follower of Jesus.
After the concert, the director sought me out. “I think you’ve got a gift,” he said. “I’m wondering if you’d be interested in joining our team. In a few weeks we’ll start going out every Sunday night to do concerts in different churches around the state. I’d like you to consider going with us and giving a message at each concert.”
And so, less than a year after hearing God’s call to proclaim His Word I was travelling around the state every week doing just that. My Gospel Team experience led to other opportunities to speak in churches, camps, and other groups. But, the story doesn’t end there.
I attended Judson College (now University) for four years where God continued to give me opportunities to speak and to teach. I was even the campus Student Chaplain for a year. As I prepared to graduate, I wondered what I was going to do and thought I might pursue full-time pastoral ministry, but I was newly married and didn’t really want to rack up more debt with grad school. Youth Ministry is a common first step breaking into pastoral ministry, so I began applying for positions as a youth pastor.
There was one youth ministry position open that I desperately wanted, but had little chance of getting. It was a large church with a large youth group and a solid reputation. I figured that without a seminary degree and with no experience there was no way I would even be considered for the job, but I sent in my resume anyway. A few weeks later I received a phone call and a subsequent phone interview, but shortly after the interview I received the polite “thanks, but no thanks,” letter from the search committee. I continued to pursue other options.
Weeks went by and I was no further in figuring out what I was going to do after school. I interviewed and was accepted into the Master’s program in acting at the University of Iowa (ironically, my 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success blog post is now a fixture on their department’s homepage). However, that didn’t seem like the right avenue for me any more than going to seminary. Either option would only add to my debt load and my young wife was less than thrilled with the idea of having to continue working full time to support us.
Then, out of the blue, the Chairman of the search committee for the youth pastor position I figured I would never get called me. “We’ve been praying a lot as a committee,” he said, “And the Holy Spirit keeps bringing you back into our conversation. It’s kind of crazy, but we believe we’re supposed to invite you for another interview.” And so I interviewed again. Quickly, I was asked to visit the church for a weekend round of interviews culminating in me giving the message in the Sunday morning worship service and being voted on by the congregation.
And so, I visited the church the following weekend. I breezed through the interviews. On Sunday morning I stood up on the platform to proclaim God’s Word. Incidentally, it was the same platform I had seen in my dream seven years earlier when God called me. I was interviewing for a position in the very church in Marshalltown where my faith journey following Jesus began and where I heard God’s call. The dream like vision I had been given of standing on the platform in that church was literally fulfilled.
Samuel’s story is one in a long string of examples of God calling and using the young, the weak, and the least to accomplish His purposes. My own story has caused this truth to resonate deep within me. Every person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and is a part of the body of Christ has been spiritually gifted to accomplish God’s divine purpose. This is true no matter the age, social status, gender, background, experience, history, pedigree, or educational level. You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a stamp of approval from the board of your local church. Using the gifts you’ve been given to serve God and others is part of the daily journey of any Jesus follower.