Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Enemies of the Cross

Philippians 4:18  "For many...conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ."
Many people interpret this to say and apply it as people who are enemies of Christianity or of Christ or of Christians.  Simple persecution.  But this is not what it says.  It says "enemies of the cross."
So why would people be enemies of the cross?
This is a pivotal point in one's transformation.  The cross is a pivotal point in the history of God's work with His people.  What the cross is, is a statement from God that while the cross is all about you - saving you - it is more than that, all about God and that God's glory is the ultimate aim in all this.  That is why the cross has enemies.  No one wants to live their life according to someone else's agenda.  It is a simple as that.  Even if there were a God, most people would not be interested in placing themselves at His disposal.  The whole concept is repugnant.
Most Christians don't even believe this, that God is for God.  That life is for Christ's glory.  That our lives are for Him.  Most people have "accepted Christ into their lives" which is a huge theological and practical problem.  When we try to include God in our lives then things get messed up very quickly because that is not God's plan.  He is not Mr. Fixit.  The exhortation to pray unceasingly does not mean that we are to spend every moment asking God for stuff.  Psalm 95 says, "Oh that today you would listen to His voice."  Our job is to listen for God's voice, hear what He is telling us and then to do it regardless of the consequences.  This is the cross and why it has enemies.  The cross is the perfect example of someone who listened to God and did whatever God asked with disastrous consequences to himself.  Following that example were all the disciples and martyrs throughout the ages.  Even today there are Christians all over the world who live their lives doing God's bidding putting themselves in great peril.  However, we find very few of those people in US churches, me included among them.
It is a terrifyingly transformative thing to simply do what God asks us to do.  It requires that we first listen and then act on what we hear (after bouncing it off historical Christianity and our community).
We must no longer be enemies of the cross as it steals our agenda away and give ourselves to its humiliation and suffering and power. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

After "Yes" II - New Creation

Be a better caterpillar or become a butterfly. 
      OK, so women will get this but guys...I know this doesn't sound very manly but suspend your reality for a moment to get the metaphor.  What does one do to be transformed, not into a better caterpillar but into a new creation, a butterfly?  God calls us to be not re-newed creations but "new" creations.
The main thing that we as Christians must do after saying "Yes" to Christ is to change our thinking [the Greek word for repentance is not turn 180 degrees like most teach but it is "metanoia" which means to think again].  We must change our thinking.  We must think not about learning/understanding/applying more but about getting a suntan.  If we spend time in the sun we will get tanned.  Our "work" consists not of doing anything about our tan but about our position.  We can't learn enough about Christ to become transformed and we can't apply or ply enough understanding into our lives to enact change.  What we can and must do is put ourselves in the sun.  We must spend time doing what we were made to do which is worship and serving others.  If we do those things then transformation happens, not because we are making it happen but because our position with God allows it to happen.  God  operates on us when we put ourselves in His environment.  When we set ourselves up as the arbiter of our lives and control it then God cannot work.  He has bound His power by giving us free will.  We can choose to ignore Him.  We can choose to live lives outside His will.  We can choose, as Christians, to live lives that are "right" but have no relationship to what He is doing and that leave our lives lackluster and shallow and broken....and un-transformed.
      I know many Christians who live pretty exemplary lives doing the do of church attendance and are pretty happy and content with life but whose lives do not exhibit Christ.  I worry about them.  More perhaps than I worry about non-believers.  At least I know, and non-believers know, where they are.  It is this muddled group that rocks my boat.  They have been Christians for years and yet seem to live lives no different than the life of a non-believer.  No greater comfort or solace.  No better relationships.  Same divorce rate.  Same pornography usage rate.  They suffer the same devastation and frustration and despair during trials.
       I also know a few Christians who are in love with Jesus and for whom the tossing of the world seems to have no impact.  They do not seem pressured to perform.  They play well.  They serve easily and have open hands to others.  They engage often in church activities but are not hyper-religious or self-righteous or proud.        They forgive easily and are pliant with others.  They lead if pressed into service but follow well even in leadership with a servant heart.  "How can I be Christ to you?" seems to be the lens through which they look at every encounter.  Not Christ the teacher or lecturer or judge but Christ at the well, Christ with the adulterous woman, Christ washing feet.
      After "Yes"?   Worship and serve.  Those will compel you to learn and understand more about this God we adore.  Metamorphosis happens in His presence, better caterpillars are made the other way around.

After "Yes"

      After one says "Yes" to Jesus and you are in the boat, what happens next?  In James, Scripture says that no one who is double minded can expect anything from God.  Another Lowcountry way to say this is that you can't be double boated and expect to go anywhere.  If you have a foot in the boat of the world and a foot in Jesus' boat, you are not going anywhere.  Jesus can't help you and the world won't help you.  Can't be double-boated.  So we are assuming from last week that both of your feet are in Jesus' boat.
      Interestingly, this is where most of the divisions between Christians takes place.  All denominations believe that to be a Christian someone has to make a decision to follow Christ.  The "now what" hinges on how much of our growth rests on us and how much is pure grace or gift.  To fine tune the argument a tad more, almost every denomination believes that the recipient of grace has to perform a work to get into heaven.  (The strict predestination-ists believe that a few people are created for heaven and the rest are created for hell. This is unpalatable for most people and we can deal with that later if someone comments on it.  For now we will ignore this group.)  So...everyone has to do a work to get into heaven.  The work can be set on a scale from the work being simply saying, "Yes" [Eph 1:4] all the way to the work being cooperating with the Holy Spirit one's entire life [Rom 2:6,7].  An image that may be helpful is communion.  In the Catholic church, one is handed the cup and one must grasp the cup and take a drink - obviously indicating that you are responsible for accepting and actively engaging in the grace that is offered you.  On the other hand, in that same tradition, the bread is placed on one's tongue, obviously indicating you have very little to do with God's grace getting into you - opening your mouth is the extent of your work and the "grace" is put in you.  This is done the opposite way in the Anglican church where one does not hold the cup but the server holds the cup to you, you open your mouth and the server pours the wine into your mouth indicating that you have nothing to do with the grace poured into you - except to open your mouth.  On the other hand, in that tradition one is handed the bread and one must put it into one's own mouth indicating that you must act on the grace place within your grasp.   In most protestant congregations, there is a table set up and you have to do all the "work" yourself of getting to the table and helping yourself which doesn't work as a metaphor of their theology of grace only but that is another discussion. 
       To bring this back into perspective, we all have to somehow act on the grace that is offered to us.  There is no action possible if the bread and the wine of grace do not exist.  God does not bring us into relationship with Him without our consent and even simple consent is a work.
      So now, back to our topic, what next, whether we work a lot or a little?
      Paul in his letter to the Romans tells us that we are a new creation.  Many Christians want that to mean that Walt becomes a better Walt.  The best Walt that he can be, the "perfect" Walt, as it were.  What that means is that I am going to participate with the Holy Spirit in re-tooling myself.  I am going to "study myself to be approved" and obey because the result of my cooperation and obedience will change who I am.  As I spend time in prayer and the simple disciplines of contemplation and recollection and simplicity, the desires of the flesh will fall away and I will gradually move toward holiness.
      The problem with this is that what I am doing is being a caterpillar who is becoming a better and better caterpillar.  What needs to happen is for me to become, not a different species of animal - still a monarch, if you will - but a completely new creation than the caterpillar.  This is the word used by Christ in His transformation on Mt Carmel and Paul's call for us to not be conformed to the world but transformed - to be "metamorphized".  So how in the world do we do THAT?
 ~After "Yes" II~

Formation 3

You have decided to follow Christ.  Now what?
Plumbing has been used many times regarding the simplicity of formation and it remains one of the best metaphors for me.  Plumbing is simple: water flows downhill unless it is under pressure.  If it is under pressure it will go anywhere and find even the smallest means of escape.  Pretty simple.  And not to disparage the plumber's work, but it is actually pretty simple. However, small mistakes can easily and completely ruin a multi-million dollar home.
    After deciding to follow Jesus, the concept of formation is pretty simple.  Spend time worshiping Him, learn about Him, and do some kind of ministry.  You are now good to go.  We can expand this and there are many models which try to get these three concepts across, but it is all very basic.  One easy way to remember it is, Up, In, and Out.  We must direct our focus Up to God which is worship, In as to inwardly learn and digest about God, and Out, take God's message and love out to the world.
    As an aside, there is no pressure regarding failure in formation.  That is what grace is about.  The working out of salvation is like a child in a school play.  The parents (God) would, of course, love for their sweetheart (you) to put on the performance of a lifetime but the performance is really irrelevant to the love they have for their child.  They will love their child standing ovation or rotten tomatoes.  God loves us no matter our performance.  Note however, importantly, that unlike performance in a recital, our performance really does matter in an extraordinary way.  Not in its effect on God's love for us but on the working out of God's story.  What we do has eternal, profound consequences.  That should scare us a bit driving us to our knees to discover what part God wants us to play in this drama of His.  He has created both us in all our glory and designed our work to be done so doing our part is like lungs doing theirs.  The consequences of our activities should also drive us into the fact that He is big and is redeeming.  Should we, on a rare occasion mess up, He can fix things and grow flowers out of our...manure.
    You have decided to follow Jesus.
    The first thing to do next is to begin to hang around Christians.  Unlike most others, this religion is not a philosophy or a system of beliefs but a lifestyle within a group.

spend time telling Him wonderful things about Himself.  Seems very egotistical on His part and yes it is.  Egotism on our part is a sickness believing the world revolves around us and it doesn't.  For God it is simply a fact.  As someone said, "There is one God and you are not Him."  Telling Him who He is is called praise, adoration, worship.  God is great.  God is good.  Yes, but you can be more creative than this.  Reading the Psalms and Isaiah can help with ideas should you get stuck.  For you in particular as you read this, He is your hope, your rescue, your family counselor, your will and ability to reconcile with ________ , your direction, your light on your path in this world.
Many people think that prayer is just asking God for things but perhaps the most substantial part of prayer is to in-form God who He is and that you know what kind of character He is.  This process of telling God who He is changes you.  It is a peculiar spiritual process for which I know no analogies.
    Now many people will say that one needs to start formation with reading the Bible.  That is reasonable advice however most people today join a church family not by an assent to their beliefs but because they find the community warm and welcoming, the experience of being with Christian's astonishing. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Formation Sermon 2

So... life is good enough?  Not quite?
As a start to this journey, as in a marriage (from last week) the first major hurdle is to simply say "yes."  But a "Yes" that is not "OK", not assent, not compliance or obedience, not a "Yes, I'll give this a go." We are talking here of a "Yes, I am getting into this raft that is unalterably going through the white water rapids of the Colorado River with no opportunity to change my mind".  There is simply no way for you to make progress in a marriage or in your relationship with Christ if you don't commit.  One may think we can dance with Christ and gradually get to know Him well but this is simply not true.  There is something critical about a decision.  The honeymoon is wonderful and the flutters a delight...but fleeting.  There are difficult things to deal with as the journey together becomes longer and authentic.  Unless you have committed to each other to press through those difficult times of learning to love, you can never experience true marriage or true Christianity. 
    In our spiritual walk, the beginning can be easy and exciting and one can continue to walk without a commitment not even realizing that we are not even true friends with our walking partner.  But, most people will realize at some point that the relationship is stale, stagnant or boring or unfulfilling.  Often then one looks for a new relationship.  We all know people who hop from relationship to relationship because they cannot find "the" one.  Generally, it is because they refuse to commit.  If we stay in the relationship, we soon realize that we are being asked to change, to pay attention to someone else, to become someone different than we are, to sacrifice some things, in Jesus' words, to die to ourselves.  This time in our life pivots on the decision we made.  What I am finding in my conversations with many people is that those who think they have committed to Christ have often based their decision on an idea that Christianity will be good for them and their family, a good practical decision, will provide a good return for their investment, Jesus is true but true because He makes life better.  I have even heard this preached - that if you give to Christ you will get back more than you give.  Nice tooth-fairy theology but hardly Christ's.  And as often I hear people begin to doubt Christ.  Their expectations are not being met so where is He?  So... there are two critical components to the "Yes" that is required by Christ.  One is that you are convinced that you are getting married for good.  You are marrying, not the person but the relationship, marrying marriage as it were.  The second depends on the first.  You are deciding that, "yes," you will give up your welfare, your agenda, your dreams for the other person. 
    If you are not a Christian then take a moment to decide whether Christ is God.  If He is God, then you have another choice to make...will you follow Him.  If you are a Christian - or have thought yourself to be one - then your next step in your growth as a disciple is to give yourself up to Him for ever, despite how you feel and despite what may come.  You must decide that you will ride these rapids out - and better put, you will make sure the raft makes it through the rapids no matter what happens to you.  Everything does get better if you stay with this.  Everything but your life and circumstances. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Formation Sermon 1

In order for any of this to make sense we have to have an understanding that formation is a process.  If you believe that being a Christian is an event, only a wedding if you will, then formation doesn’t make sense.  Ben Johnson, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary states that our relationship with Christ does not grow, that we do not grow closer to Christ but that our relationship only becomes different.  The relationship with Christ changes, he contends, but this ”does not mean improvement.”  He even uses the example that his marriage is different now but is not better than it was on their wedding day.  How sad.

If our relationship with Christ is not improving, getting better, then it is dying.  As with any relationship, there is no middle ground.  So we have to have this understanding that there are stages of actual growth, there are mature and immature Christians  We are all un-formed Christians but some of us are less formed than others.  This is easy to see in children but adults have a harder time thinking that they are immature or need to grow. 

To return to the wedding/marriage analogy, my position at St Johns is like a marriage counselor for your marriage to Christ.  A wedding is a great thing and it is critical to make a public statement of fidelity to your wife.  Making a public confession of Christ is critical, but, as with marriage, is there more?  Are marriage preparation and marriage quality an issue?  In his book, Unchristian, Kinneman’s research shows that 85% of Americans state that they have made a public profession for Christ.  Now, only about 30% of the population says they attended church “last weekend” so where are the other 55% of believers.  Obviously we have a lot of “wedding” Christians with little or no marriage.  So….
How are you doing?  Is Christ there for you, walking with you through the tough spots that you can’t handle on your own?  You obviously participate in church since you are here.  And most of us are involved in a Bible study or Sunday School class.  Jesus has an impact on who you are and how you act.  Got your ticket and you're done? 

These talks are an invitation to take a step, for some a leap maybe, to see if there is more to your life with Christ than what it is now.  Kind of like -
You got married to Christ at baptism and confirmation and now... what? You’re on speaking terms?  Life perks along and is happy enough.  Nothing is really wrong with life – troubles but everyone has troubles.  Not quite content but is anyone?  Being a Christian doesn’t mean I supposed to be happy all the time, does it?  So what are you talking about?  Life is good enough. 
Well… is it?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Which teens persevere in their faith?

1.  I am the youngest man in my Bible study.  I'm just about 61.  Almost all of the men in the study are saddened by the fact that one or more of their children no longer attend church.  Their children claim Christ but....
2.  There is a child in our congregation who is very smart.  Well instructed in the Bible.  Knows the stories.  Does not attend Sunday School or any of our youth groups or events.  
3.  Our theology at our church is so jumbled up it is hard to know what denomination we are.
4.  Most people don't care what our theology or doctrines are.
5.  There is no knowledge test you have to pass to walk through the Pearly Gates.
6.  You do have to know someone to get in, though.

These six little statements are very important for parents.  Our relationship with Christ is primarily held together not by theology or principles or Bible knowledge or miracles or even an experience with God.  What we know is good and informs our faith.  It helps us keep our understanding of Who Jesus/God is cleaner, more pure.  But the thing that keeps us in the faith, that keeps most people at St. John's coming to St. John's and returning to Jesus in the midst of crises is their relationship with someone here.  Same with kids.  In Smith's book, Soul Searching, it becomes abundantly clear to him and the reader, that to persevere in the faith, it takes Christ-centric friends.  Doesn't mean going to Bible studies all the time with them but just having them around.

Want your child in heaven with you?  Make sure their social life is heavily engaged with other Christians their age.  Their main peer group really must be a Christ-centric group.  Ohhh and adults....  Ditto.