Monday, September 26, 2016

Monday Morning Thoughts About Sunday: The Church as an End Times Family

Here's the deal about 1 Peter 5.1-5. In order to understand what Peter teaches about elders/shepherds/pastors, we must first understand the world in which Peter imagines the Church.

The Church is an end times family. 

In 1 Peter 5.1 Peter describes himself to his fellow-elders as a fellow-partaker of "the glory that is going to be revealed." This is a provocative statement because Peter has taught not many verses ago about this future reality. "Rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4.13, ESV). In this verse the revelation of Jesus' glory is future. In 5.1 however, Peter can describe himself along with his fellow-elders as present partakers of the glory that will be revealed. This means, among other things, that the Church is a family that presently partakes of Jesus' future glory. More specifically, the Church offers the world an advance foretaste, an appetizer so to speak, of what the world made new will be like. So the world to come sets the tone for the present life of the Church. 

Because everyone in the world to come will bow the knee to Jesus, we gather as the Church to confess Jesus is Lord. 

Because everyone in the world to come will have their sins forgiven, we gather as the Church to proclaim and extend forgiveness. 

Because everyone in the world to come will have their needs sufficiently met, we gather as the Church to share resources that provide for the poor. 

Because everyone in the world to come will freely communicate with God as Father, we gather as the Church for the sake of prayer. 

Because everyone in the world to come will believe only truth, we gather as the Church to be shaped by the truth of the Word from God. 

Because everyone in the world to come, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. will be reconciled to God and each other, we gather as the Church to celebrate the meal that anticipates that reconciliation. 

This description of why we gather could go on and on, but you get the idea. When we gather together as an end times family, everything we do must point to the hope that will characterize eternity. 

This is why Stanley Grenz writes: 
Our corporate identity lies in the future. What the church is, is determined by what the church is destined to become. And the church is destined to be nothing less than a new humanity, the glorious company of God's redeemed people who inhabit the renewed creation and enjoy the presence of the Triune God. ... Our task is to live according to the principles that characterize God's future goal for creation. Our purpose is to be a foretaste of the glorious eternity that God will one day graciously give us in its fullness. ... In short, the church is a sign of the kingdom. We are to point the way toward the future (Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, 213).      
Does that describe your understanding of "Church?" How about your experience of Church? Brothers and sisters our weekly gatherings, and our mid-week gathering for that matter, are shaped by the Spirit of God to whet our appetites for the age to come. Moreover, they are intended by the Spirit of God to reveal the quality of the age to come. My grandmother used to comment after the Sunday morning service, "I feel like I've been to Church." I always wondered what that feeling was like or was supposed to be like. 1 Peter helps me understand that feeling a little bit more. May the Spirit of God grant that after we have gathered, each of might say, "I feel like I've been to the future."

Listen here to our exposition of 1 Peter 5.1-5

Monday, September 19, 2016

Monday Morning Thoughts about Sunday: Communion

Here’s the deal about Communion.

As a teenager and “young” adult, I was often disappointed to learn we were “celebrating” communion. In fact, celebration would never have been a word I associated with communion. It seemed back then the Lord’s Supper was usually offered during the evening service. Our family always arrived early to every Church service, and we would walk into the sanctuary with plenty of time to spare. Often times the Deacons would still be preparing the Table by setting out the shiny silver trays that contained the tiny shot glasses of Welch’s and the plates of tiny, tasteless communion wafers. I usually felt an inner exhale of disappointment when I noticed the stacked trays, because they symbolized one thing and one thing only - guilt. Think about the irony of that for a moment. Paul writes that as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11.26). Something that proclaims the means of our atonement is something that makes us feel guilty? Houston, we have a theological problem!

As Baptists, we didn’t officially believe in anything that resembled what the Romans Catholics describe as penance. However, at Sunday evening Communion services, that’s basically what we practiced. My overly-general understanding of penance goes something like this. You’ve done something wrong. You’ve acknowledged the error of your ways and requested forgiveness. At this point a spiritual leader - call him priest, pastor, or brother so and so - tells you all is forgiven, just go do thus and so and “It’s all good!” Now, for Roman Catholics this exchange takes place in a confessional, on Saturday afternoon. For Baptists, on the other hand, this exact same deal is cut, albeit not in a confessional. It happens in the Sanctuary at 6:55 on Sunday evening. Even though we didn’t call it penance, the result was the same. The time of self-examination revealed some inward sin and we had work to do before we could experience the hospitality of God at the Table of the Lord. The Gospel, on the other hand, is quite different than both scenarios. The good news is this: God unconditionally accepts the Gospel-believing sinner. James Torrance captures this provocative truth this way:
In the New Testament forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. Because Christ has borne our sin on the cross, we are invited to repent - to receive his forgiveness in repentance. That is, repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace. The goodness of God leads us to repentance.
This is the truth of the Gospel and this has chaperoned our reading of 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. Without submitting our interpretation to the Gospel, we have sometimes used this passage to keep forgiven sinners from coming to Table of the Lord. After considering the historical context of 1 Corinthians 11, and looking closely at what the text actually says, we have learned that Paul is not discouraging us from coming to the Table because of some unresolved issue in our Spiritual lives. Rather, this text invites us to see the Table as Jesus’ gift to us, to help us come together in Gospel unity as the one Body of Christ partaking of the one loaf. How we approach the Lord’s Supper must be faithful to the Gospel.

Thus, as our week begins let us meditate on two Gospel Realities.

  1. The mercies of God in Jesus have made us worthy family members at God’s table.
  2. The Lord’s Supper has reminded us of the reality of us.

Regarding this second reality, I believe the Spirit is reminding us of the horizontal dimension of being reconciled to God. In other words, when God reconciles us to himself, that upward movement also propels us to live in reconciled relationships with all who have been reconciled to God. Paul teaches this clearly in Ephesians 2. Verses 1-10 describe our reconciliation to God by grace through faith (2.8-10). Verses 11-22 describe the horizontal result of our vertical movement toward God. Describing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles, Paul writes:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace (2.14-15, NIV).
To summarize: When God broke down the barrier between him and humans, he also broke down barriers that divide humans. This helps us make sense of why God requires us to live in reconciled relationships with others, because those relationships are the necessary result of living in a reconciled relationship with God (see Matt. 6.14-15). This is why communion is not about me and my overly-individualized relationship with God. Instead, communion is a gift from Jesus to sustain us within the family of Jesus, because communion is a time for me to discern the body (1 Cor. 11.29), and an opportunity to extend hospitality to all members of the Body who share the one loaf (1 Cor. 10.17).

So thanks be to God that his mercy has made us one with him and with each other.
Take a listen to our exposition of 1 Corinthians 11.17-34.

Here’s what I’m reading.

The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monday Morning Thoughts about Sunday: Malachi

Here's the deal with Malachi. The kingdom of God is present and the kingdom of God is not yet present. During Malachi's ministry, God's people were doubting the love of God and what the prophet's preaching was designed to do was to get the Jews to look ahead to the promise of God's future in order to nurture present trust in God's unfailing love. Let's unpack this a bit, by describing two kingdom realities.

The kingdom of God is present. 

During Jesus' earthly ministry he taught that with his incarnation the long-awaited kingdom of God had come. The most basic definition of the kingdom/reign of God is "the sphere where God's desired will is obeyed." Jesus most clearly teaches that with him God's reign has come, in texts like Matthew 12.28. After healing a demon-possessed man and being accused by the Pharisees that he cast out demons by the prince of demons, Jesus responds that the reign of God has come and that is why the demons are fleeing. "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt. 12.28, ESV). Jesus teaches the same in Luke 17.20-21. 
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (ESV).  

Here Jesus teaches that with his coming, the kingdom of God has also come. However, Jesus includes an important nuance. In the initial stage, the coming of God's reign will not be observable. It will not be visible. The kingdom of God will not at first displace the kingdoms of this world like Rome. Instead, for an unknown period of time, the kingdom of God will coexist with other kingdoms. This leads to our second kingdom reality.

The kingdom of God is not yet present. 

The not yet aspect of the kingdom is also illustrated by Jesus' teaching. In Matthew 13.31-32 he compares the reign of God to a grain of mustard seed that a man sowed in his field. The point of Jesus' parable is to teach the initial hiddenness - the present smallness of the kingdom. There is coming a future day then the kingdom will grow so that it is "larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (ESV).

Summary: The kingdom is already and not yet. 

This is not only taught by Jesus in the Gospels, but also by his servant Paul, in the Epistles. Paul tells the Colossians that King Jesus "has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1.13-14, ESV). By virtue of our union with Christ by the Spirit, the Kingdom of God's Son is a sphere in which forgiveness of sins is found. Furthermore, it is a sphere into which Paul says we have been transferred. The kingdom is already. On the other hand, Paul can tell the Corinthians that the risen Christ is the firstfruits, and then only at his coming will those who belong to him be raised to a life like his. "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power" (1 Cor. 15.24, ESV). The kingdom is not yet. The New Testament holds these two realities in tension, and so should we.

What does this have to with Malachi? 

The people of Malachi's day lived in a similar already/not yet tension. In obedience to God, they built the Temple. But all the glorious realities to which the Temple pointed as a sign, would not come until the time of Jesus. They were challenged by Malachi to live in light of the glorious future and not to let the disappointments of the present turn them into a herd of Eeyores who deny God's love. Like a child who wants to unwrap all her gifts before Christmas has arrived, we often fall into the selfish trap of wanting all of God's good gifts now. Instead, we are called by God to wait. Oftentimes what it is we want (healing, peace, all suffering to end) refers to a reality we are only guaranteed at the Second Coming of Jesus. These are good desires. These are godly desires. However, because God is graciously patient, our message from Malachi is to patiently wait. This means we shouldn't be surprised when we get bad news from the doctor, when a relationship falls apart, when we remain beset by a certain sin over which we can't seem to gain victory. Don't ever forget, it isn't until the day of Jesus Christ that God will bring his good work to completion (Phil. 1.6). Until then, be patient with the world as it is, with others as they are, and with yourself as you are.

Take a listen to our exposition of Malachi.

I am currently reading The Signature of Jesus: The Call to a Life Marked by Holy Passion and Relentless Faith by Brennan Manning.

Don't forget we are studying Deuteronomy each Wednesday at 6 PM in room 104.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tuesday Morning Thoughts about Sunday: Haggai

The story of how Christianity first appeared in Russia is compelling. Indeed, the narrative demonstrates the apologetic power of beauty. Around the year 988, Vladimir the Great was looking for ways to unify his Russian Empire. History taught him that religion is a powerful force that can bring citizens together. So the Russian Emperor assembled an envoy to research the great world religions. They travelled to all the holy places of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. As the group reported to Vladimir the results of their research, the Grand Prince was drawn to their description of the Christian worship they encountered at the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.
Beauty is what God the Spirit used to draw a powerful Russian Emperor to faith in Christ. Another Russian, this one, a renowned author, understood the power of beauty.
Beauty will save the world (Fyodor Dostoyevsky). 
I fear we underestimate the potential power of beauty to convince others and ourselves of truth - truth about God, truth about the Gospel, truth about the origin of this strange and beautiful world we call home. According to Scripture, the faith by which the righteous live, is also a reality that is often mixed with doubt. In other words, faith by its very nature is “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11.1). That means faith and certainty are not the same thing. This is good news!! We are not saved by grace, through certainty. We are saved by grace through faith. This side of resurrection, faith and doubt will coexist. But thanks be to God there is coming a day when we will see the Object of our faith and hope, and hope and faith will no longer be necessary.

While we wait, however, we must understand the power of beauty, because I believe beauty has the power to overcome the doubts that trouble us until we see Jesus. Think of the last time you experienced true beauty. I realize this is a bit subjective, but one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen is Wrigley Field on an early summer day. Walking in underneath that historic red sign at Clark and Addison with my oldest son, finding our seats and beholding one of the bluest skies I can remember, gazing at the freshly manicured grass that was an indescribable shade of green, and those ivy-covered brick walls - all of these images and especially the profile of my son as I watched him inspect the same images with me, both for the first time, is something I will never ever forget. Each of these images, in its own way can only be described as, ... beautiful. I can tell you that in those moments my faith was likely more strong than it had been in quite a while. Troubles had energized doubt in a way that began to sabotage my life with God. In fact, the decision to take Silas to that game emerged out of deeply felt need to take a break from some the issues that were causing stress and anxiety in my life. That time at Wrigley Field with my son reminded me that God was good, that he loved me, and that he had graced my life with unimaginable blessings. You see, in those moments of stress and anxiety, truth alone was not able to defeat my doubt. Difficult times had moved my gaze away from the many beautiful gifts in my life.  But with every beautiful image of that day - that beautiful sign, the green of the grass, the blue of the sky, the sound of my son saying to me, “Dad, that’s Anthony Rizzo!” , and then concluding the day with a trip to the food court of a suburban mall so we each could get our favorite food - with each of these images it was "beauty that trumped my doubt" (Marcus Mumford).

All of this directly relates to our study of Haggai. During the time of the prophet’s ministry, the people had been lulled into apathy by the ugly difficulty of returning home from Babylon. And it was the call of Haggai the prophet for God’s people to come together to make something beautiful to honor God’s presence among them. The ugliness of the ruins of the Temple and the City had allowed doubt to come to life and overtake the corporate faith of God’s people. In sending the prophet Haggai, God was faithful to his promise, for it was through Haggai that the people were made alive by the Spirit to make something beautiful for the glory of God’s name. It was through coming together to make something beautiful that God did a work of revival in Haggai’s day.

So that we can continue to be shaped by the message of Haggai, let us heed these two exhortations.
  1. Let us devote ourselves to making beautiful things for the glory of God. Music. Harvest. Stairs. Quilts. Meals. Poems. Carvings. Letters. Classrooms. Whatever we find ourselves making this week, let us seek the life and wisdom of the Spirit of God to make these “things” beautiful for God’s sake. 
  2. Let us commit to praying before every thing we do. If God is in the business of filling Bezalel and Oholiab (see Exod. 31) with his Spirit so that they can construct a beautiful tabernacle, perhaps God wants to energize you for your work today, no matter what it is. By the way, here is the prayer I mentioned during yesterday’s sermon.
A Prayer Before Commencing Any Task
Almighty God, our Help and Refuge, Fountain of wisdom and Tower of strength, who knows that I can do nothing without Your guidance and help; assist me, as I pray to you, and direct me to divine wisdom and power, that I may accomplish this task, and whatever I may undertake to do, faithfully and diligently according to Your will, so that it may be profitable to myself and others, and to the glory of Your Holy Name. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
This prayer serves to remind us, that no matter what we are doing, we can choose to do it for the glory of God and thereby be empowered by God for the task. Brothers and sisters, let us break down the imaginary wall between the sacred and the secular and invite the presence of God to invade all aspects of our lives. I love you all! I thank God that I am blessed to serve as your pastor for it is through your lives that I regularly encounter beauty! Thanks be to God.

Take a listen to our exposition of Haggai.

Also, here’s the beautiful picture sketched by my new friend Trevor.

We hope you can make it to Wednesday evening Bible study. This Wednesday we begin a new study of Deuteronomy in room 104 at 6 PM.

Here's what I'm reading.

How I Love Your Torah, O LORD: Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy by Daniel Block.

Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life by Thomas Moore.