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Archive for June, 2011

Who, in their right mind, turns down a gift?  Apparently, a lot of people do, when they reject the church.

Jim Samra has written a helpful little book called The Gift of Church: How God Designed the Local Church to Meet Our Needs as Christians, in which he argues that the church is, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, a gift from God to help Christians mature spiritually.  In it Samra gives us 6 chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the church and how it functions as a blessing to Christians:

  • God is uniquely present when the church gathers
  • In the church, there is unity in diversity in Christ
  • We find true community in the church
  • The church is God’s instrument of bringing about spiritual growth
  • The church can accomplish more for God’s Kingdom than individual Christians
  • The church makes an invisible Jesus visible to the world

Mind you, Samra does not ignore the problems of the church; in fact, he even notes that the primary argument against the church is the church itself!  But he, rightly, comes from the vantage point that the church is the collection of God’s people, whom he has redeemed for his name and his purposes.  If God himself hasn’t given up the church, then why should we?  Because of this there are points when Samra almost comes across as too idealistic (I say ‘almost’ because he doesn’t sugarcoat anything), but when I stop and reread Ephesians I realize that Paul himself uses high praise for God’s people, and he was as familiar as anybody with their problems.

Samra offers some useful perspective throughout the book with helpful illustrations (you can tell he’s a pastor).  For instance, in the first chapter he likes corporate worship to a experiencing a full-blown concert, as opposed to listening to a cd on your own.  Sure, listening to the Beatles on the radio is good, but for those experienced them live in one of their many sold out shows, they’d pick the live show.

His take on diversity was good, too.  Many of us think of ethnic diversity when we hear that word, but Samra does point out there are other forms of diversity in the church (without ignoring the racial component).  So, for those who think going to their college Bible study, as an example, is the same thing as going to church, they forget that the church is supposed to include people outside their own demographic.  He didn’t put it this way, but basically by doing this (my college Bible study, the Christian guys at work going to lunch, etc) you are forming your church in a “Jesus + __” manner.  That is, “being a part of our ‘church’ requires you to believe in Jesus and be an accountant.”  But this has never been God’s plan for the church (though this does make me want to have a conversation with Samra on church membership).

Samra’s book is not a “how-to” approach to church.  He doesn’t advocate for a particular style, which means that churches of various stripes (contemporary and traditional, megachurch and house church, etc) can utilize this book and apply it in their context.

My concerns with this book have little to do with content and more to do with might be the perception of it.  For instance, some might accuse Samra of capitulating to our culture, which focuses on “me” more than others, especially God.  Is answering “how the church can benefit you” the wrong approach in a culture that is already me-centered?

The answer to this question comes in the subtitle and is sprinkled throughout the book, which explicitly states the church is designed to “meet our needs as Christians.”  “Needs” is the key word here.  Many people mistake “wants” for “needs,” and Samra does well to avoid this problem.  The local church may not give you everything you want, but God has designed it to meet your needs.

One thought I did have as I finished up the book was that I’d love to see Samra write a follow up from another angle, how God has designed individual Christians to serve the local church.  There is certainly some of this throughout the book, but maybe a stronger focus would help it stand out to those who tend to focus on themselves rather than others.  (Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church- something like that.)

Who will benefit the most from this book?  My guess is that people who call themselves Christians but have basically given up on the church will probably not be convinced otherwise from The Gift of Church.  They should, and Samra clearly lays out the biblical teaching on the subject.  But in my experience, those who have reached this place probably know what the Bible says and for various reasons have opted to move in a different direction.

But for those who have one foot in the church and one foot out, so to speak, The Gift of Church will probably be of great benefit, and for those of us know need the occasional reminder of why we “do church.”  If you allow yourself to be, you’ll be encouraged and convicted (as I was, and I’ve never really struggled with the church) to stick it out with God’s plan for the church in this world.  Samra is to be commended for a fine book on a worthwhile topic.

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A few weeks back I preached a message on Psalm 87, with reference to Colossians 1:21-23.  I’m drawn to the “once… but now” contrast of the Colossians passage.  I find it powerful in reminding me what God has done in Christ.  I was curious if there are other passages in Scripture that use this same basic construction and came up with 4, all from Paul.  I’m going to spend more time researching this, particularly passages where “but now” is present.  In the meantime here’s a handy little table of the first set, with some explanation given below:

Passage

Once (pote)

But now (nuni de)

Application

Col 1:21-23 Once you were alienated from God and  enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death if you continue in your faith, do not move from the hope in the gospel.
Col 3:7-8 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now… (because you have been raised with Christ- v1) you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these…
Eph 2:11-22 Therefore, remember that formerly … you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. destroyed barrier of hostility, peace, reconciliation, fellows citizens and members of God’s household, built together- vv14-22
Philemon 1:11 Formerly he was useless to you but now… he has become useful both to you and to me  (because he has become my son- v10) receive Onesimus back as a brother- v16


There are practical implications &/or commands in these passages.  Again, these might be stated clearly and succinctly (both Colossians passages and Philemon) or explained in more detail (Ephesians).  The key here is to recognize the “but now” time frame, which we currently experience because of Christ, ought to have a tangible impact on our lives.  I structured the chart the way I did because I found some common elements, even if they are, in a couple cases, unstated but understood.  For example, at the risk of giving a Sunday School answer, the key to the “but now” portion is Jesus.  It is explicitly stated in the Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 passages, and understood from the context in both the Colossians 3 and Philemon passages.  I inserted a relevant reference to this in the latter passages.

The aspect of this little study that stands out to me the most is the theme of reconciliation (again, sometimes explicitly stated and sometimes alluded to).  The Colossians 3 passage is probably the least clear, although one could make a case that the Colossians are to reconcile their actions with their new reality in Christ (3:1).  But there are two main areas of reconciliation I see in the other passages.

One is reconciliation between people and God (Col 1:22; Eph 2:13, 16, 18).  Both Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 state this clearly.  Just look at the phrases used: alienated from God, enemies (of God) because of sinful behavior, separate from Christ, without hope and without God in this world.  But now, reconciliation has come because of what Christ has done.  Both of these passages refer to Christ’s death on the cross, in our place for our sins.  It is very clear that reconciliation is only possible because of what Christ has done on the cross.

The second type of reconciliation we see here is reconciliation within the body of Christ itself.  There are two main types:

Reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.  What were once two “people” are now one in Christ.  The language here is very strong- the Gentiles are now full members of God’s people.  The practical outworking of this should be seen in the unity of the body of Christ (which is the consistent, overarching practical theme in Ephesians in various forms).

In Philemon we see this theme of reconciliation on a smaller, but no less important, scale.  Instead of two massive groupings of humanity becoming one, we see Paul pleading with a slave owner to receive his runaway slave back as a brother in Christ.  Because Onesimus is no longer to be viewed as a piece of property but a brother in Christ, the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus must change.

It is because of the first type of reconciliation- between God and us- that reconciliation between people is possible.  The gospel message is the great equalizer.  No one escapes the fact that they are an enemy of God in need of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.  That puts all people, no matter their ethnicity or station in life, on a level playing field.  Because we were once enemies of God now reconciled to him, we can reconcile with those who are currently separated from us.

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Hearing people’s thought on preaching is always interesting.  You can ask “what makes a good sermon?” to a number of different people and receive a number of different answers.  Because churchgoers are “trained” in Christianese, you might get the standard answers: a good sermon brings glory to God, makes the Bible relevant to our lives, etc.  But truth be told, I’m not sure most of us think this way.  I say this because if we were to ask someone on a Sunday afternoon how the sermon was that morning, they’d probably say “good.”  If we asked that same person on Wednesday what the sermon was about and how it has impacted their week, they probably won’t have much of an answer.  This is, of course, my opinion and purely anecdotal.  But I’d bet it would stand up to scrutiny.

The truth is that (again, this is simply my opinion) we judge most sermons by whether or not they keep our attention.  If we can listen to some guy talk for 30-45 minutes, then he must be a good preacher.  Nevermind if we actually remember or are transformed but hearing the word of God proclaimed.  It was good because I was entertained.

Now, to be sure, I believe sermons ought to be able to keep people’s attention.  No one is served by preaching that follows all the “rules” (whatever they are) but inspires snoring.  Hearing the Bible preached is something that should excite us.  More importantly, hearing a sermon ought to have an impact on our lives, either directly (go and do ___) or indirectly (shaping our understanding of God and the world).  But I’d venture to guess they really do.

I’m an advocate of what might be called “simple preaching.”  “Simple” does not mean “shallow,” although I suppose it’s often confused with that.  I’m simply saying that a person ought to be able to tell you what the preacher spoke on and how it should have an impact.  If they can’t open up the Bible passage(s) preached on and tell you what it means and why it matters, then the sermon was, possibly, not simple enough.

And I would argue that expository preaching- preaching which focuses on a text moreso than a topic- is the simplest form of preaching.  Sure, there are a number of expository sermons that are not simple, especially those that are more an exercise of public exegesis rather than proclaiming the word.  Let me give an example.

I have on my iTunes a sermon preached by David Wells, the now retired Gordon-Conwell theology professor.  He preached it at his congregational church on a Sunday morning.  The sermon is on Psalm 33, with a few quick references here and there to other passages.  Here’s a link if you’d like to listen.

Halfway through listening to this sermon a while back it hit me that a third grader could follow it.  Mind you, David Wells is one of the top theologians in evangelicalism.  He is quite capable of losing his audience- trust me, I had him for Systematic Theology!  But this sermon was so simple that anyone, if they were truly listening, could have walked out and told you what Psalm 33 said and how to apply it.

Let me reiterate: a top notch theologian preaches an expository sermon in 31 minutes and makes it simple enough that pretty much anyone could follow it.  That’s my kind of sermon.

Keep in mind, Wells is not necessarily a great preacher.  He’s not bad at all, but he won’t be making anyone’s top 5 list any time in the near future.  You can take his sermon and use different illustrations, focus on different phrases or verses (he had to pick and choose, 22 verses in 31 minutes isn’t easy) or maybe even adjust his points a bit.  But the main thrust of the sermon and the passage will come through.  That’s simplicity.

This is one of the overlooked problems of topical preaching, at least some forms of it.  It seems like a simple style of communicating, right?  After all, if your topic is tithing, everyone can go home and tell you that they heard a sermon on tithing.  But is it something simple enough that a listener could reproduce it in another setting?  There’s a good chance it won’t be.  Why?  Because sermons that bounce from passage to passage generally rely on the unspoken connections made in the mind of the preacher.  Sure, they have words that link them together (give, love, fire, etc), but how they work together to form a simple, reproducible lesson is often unclear.  Not always, of course.  I’ve heard some absolutely atrocious expository sermons in my life, as well as some tremendous topical ones.  Topical preaching is not the bad guy.  Preaching that is unclear and relies more on the speaker’s stream of consciousness rather than a biblical text is the problem.

But now when I read Psalm 33, I know this psalm reminds me of why we gather corporately to worship God (vv1-3).  We worship God because of his character (vv4-5), his power (vv6-9), his sovereignty (vv10-12) and his knowledge (vv11-19).  And I know that vv20-22 give a quick summary of the entire psalm.  I’m not left guessing how things fit together after the sermon, because it’s right there in front of my face.  I can take this, maybe tweak it a bit, and use it in any number of settings (Bible study, discipleship, or my own sermon).  It will sound different than a David Wells sermon, but it will still be the teaching and application of Psalm 33 that comes out.

That is preaching that is simple.  It’s not shallow, it’s not theological deficient.  It’s clear and practical.  That’s one major reason why I’m an advocate of simple, expository preaching.

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Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:16)

I recently watched a sermon by Matt Chandler that has caught me in some interesting tensions.  In his sermon, Chandler offers a “test” by which one can know that they have really grasped the Gospel (my words, not his; and to be fair, the following loosely paraphrases his point, which was not the main point of his message).  The test boils down to this:  Do you approach God any differently on a good day versus a bad day?

Consider the bad day:  You wake in the morning with a complaining, ungrateful heart, skip your morning devotions, back slide into one of your recurring sin patterns, wimp out when you feel like you should share with the stranger sitting next to you on the bus, and short change your family in favor of watching the Bruins game, eventually falling asleep discouraged and convicted by your sin.  In every regard, you blow it.  Now, consider the good day:  Your morning is marked by a powerful encounter with God through His Word, you meet a friend in need and bring them encouragement and truth to help them through their hard time, you lead that stranger on the bus to Christ and plan to meet them at church that week, and you skip the Bruins game to finish your translation work for the sermon series in Hebrews, but only after you’ve spent another hour in deep, soul-satisfying prayer, and have given a month’s pay to a missionary couple heading to Bhutan.  In every regard, you “nail it” (to use Chandler’s language).

After either of these days, do you approach the Lord in prayer with any more or less confidence that He hears you?  Loves you?  Delights in you?  The short way of presenting this “test” might be: “How does your performance affect your posture to God?”  If you get the Gospel, Chandler says, it doesn’t.  You know that it is not by your righteousness that you have God’s ear, but by Christ’s, and you know that your righteous works “are as filthy rags” anyway, so on either day, you are equally confident and aware of God’s love, acceptance and attention.

On the surface, I like this “test.”   I think it illustrates the point of being saved by grace through faith quite clearly.  While I do take it as a mere illustration (i.e., not a systematic, precise, delicately nuanced description of our lives in Christ), it leaves me dealing with all sorts of tensions, some of which are quite  illuminating.  To throw out two:

(1)  Confidence and humility.  While we may approach God with confidence (on the basis of what Jesus has done for us), scripture testifies that we must also do so humbly (e.g., Lk.18:9-14, 1 Pet. 5:6, and about a million other places).  I think this is a tension for me because I’m not used to being confident without being prideful, or at best, confidence is often the slippery slope that leads me to pride.  Perhaps the reason here is that my confidence is often misplaced.  After all, one usually has a basis for one’s confidence.  Mine too often falls on my own ability or performance.  Don’t blink, because we’re right back at the Gospel again:  It’s about Jesus; who He is and what He’s done, not me.

(2)  Pleasure and displeasure.  Certainly God does not delight in my sin.  Yet, even though I still sin, in Christ, I’m white as snow.  So God takes pleasure in me as I’m in Christ, yet displeasure when I sin (which is quite often).  This tension can probably be filed in the (bulging) “already/not yet” folder, but for now it leaves me in an interesting place:  Do I not feel guilt and shame when I sin?  Am I not overjoyed when I experience victory over my sin?  So how could my good and bad days look the same with respect to my posture towards God?  Here, I think my tendency is to confuse emotions with reality.  I can feel ashamed and guilty as I approach God on my bad day, yet I remember that in reality I’m free of all guilt and shame.  I can feel joyous on my good day, yet I remember that in reality I’ve nothing good in myself; it’s all thanks to God.

Here are two examples of how the gospel changes everything.  To point (1), Confidence and humility can co-exist because the confidence is placed in someone other than ourselves.  For point (2), our standing before God doesn’t require us to trivialize sin, nor does it require us to exalt ourselves.   We can be simultaneously sorrowful (“I’m a sinner!  Forgive me!”) and joyful (“Praise be to God that I’m forgiven!”), or, joyful (“I spent my entire day helping the poor!”) and humble (“Thank you God for giving me a heart for the poor!”)

In all, I’d say Chandler’s “test” probably does require plenty of explanation and refining if we want to carry it beyond illustrative purposes; It’s certainly not meant to answer the question of one’s personal salvation (i.e., “I failed the test!  I must not be saved!”).  But as a point of meditation, or a question to ask yourself, it can be helpful, revealing, convicting and encouraging all at once, much like the Gospel itself.

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Good Friday Sermon

I got a hold of the audio for the sermon I preached on Good Friday.  Click here to listen and/or download.

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The Sri Lankan Gaius

Hospitality is a central issue in 3 John and an issue of great concern in the early church.  The Didache, an early 2nd century Christian document written within a couple decades of John’s letter, even lays out some ground rules for determining whether or not a visiting apostle or prophet is a false one by how they receive hospitality (11:1-6).

The need to extend hospitality to guest ministers was a pressing concern for early churches.  That world is a bit foreign to us, but this need makes good sense when you stop and think about it.  As taxing as itinerant ministry is today, it would have been much worse in the 1st century.

Itinerant Ministry, Then & Now

Think about it this way.  Back in October I visited CT to see my parents and speak at their church, the church of my childhood.  The distance from my house to their’s is about 100 miles.  My wife, 7.5 months pregnant at the time, and our 1.5 year old daughter packed up the car and drove.  We made the drive in 1 hour 45 minutes, give or take.  When we got there, we slept in a bed, took hot showers, ate good food and even visited the Mystic Aquarium.

But in John’s day, even a little trip like that would be a big deal.  They wouldn’t have been driving in a car; they would either walk or maybe get lucky a catch a ride (a donkey? maybe a wagon of some sort?), hardly ideal conditions for a pregnant woman and a toddler (who likely would have stayed behind anyway).  They would be exposed to the elements and, potentially even worse, bandits.  We were fortunate enough to be visiting family, whereas the itinerant ministers sent by John probably didn’t have such luck (making the familial language key).  If someone didn’t open their home, the guest speakers would hope to find a bed or a spot on the floor at an inn- and not exactly the Hilton.  And because there was no phone system, internet or carrier pigeon (as far as I know), the arrival of guest ministers may or may not be announced ahead of time.  Imagine 2 or 3 guys showing up in your town and hoping you’ll put them up, just because John sent them.

All this to say, hospitality was extremely important.  Itinerant ministry would have been an exhausting lifestyle, and they desperately needed the kindness of fellow believers if they were going to survive for the long haul.

As I was reading through 3 John, I wondered if we have much of a parallel in our world today.  We do have guest speakers at our church every so often, but it’s not nearly as draining today as it was then.  We can fly someone into Boston, maybe even on Jet Blue!  While no one in our church owns a large home, at least a few people have guest bedrooms to make available.  We take them to good restaurants (mmmm, Jim’s Deli…) and, if they have an off day, they can do some sightseeing around Boston.  Not too bad.  Most of this takes minimal effort on the part of churchgoers.

It almost seems too easy, and makes me wonder if I’ve ever really seen a situation like John envisions.  Have I ever seen someone open their home to great inconvenience, all for the sake of blessing a guest minister?

A Modern Day Gaius

Then I remembered Kumar and his family.  I met Kumar in Kalmunai, Sri Lanka back in January 2005.  I was part of a relief team that visited that town right after it was devastated by the tsunami on December 26, 2004.  Kumar and his family lived close to the beach and had their house overrun by the tsunami.  There was still a water line along the walls of the home about 5 feet high where the flood waters had settled for a while.  Kumar, his wife and 3 teenage children (a son and two daughters) all survived, although not without a major scare.  Donald, the 16 year old son, and his sister madly scrambled up a tree near the home and watched the waves drag bits of the town underneath them out into the Indian Ocean, and when the waters receded briefly Kumar waded out and rescued them, only to make it back to the roof of his house just in time.  (See the picture to the side, one of those was the tree- I can’t remember which one.)

They were able to scramble together some furniture, mostly picking it up wherever they could find it, and tried to get back to normal life.  Then I showed up with my team.  I was one of 3 men who stayed in their home for a while until room could open up at a guest house.  They gave each of us our own room and a bed.  I even had a powerful ceiling fan above me to help ward off mosquitoes, which probably saved me from malaria.  Whenever I came into the house, they gave me tea and made sure I had what I needed.

It wasn’t until our last day staying at their home when we found out that they crammed all 5 of them into one room so we could have our own rooms and a bed.  Because people in other cultures don’t show off their homes like we tend to, it never occurred to me they were doing that (we only found out because one of the other men staying there accidentally walked into their room while looking for the bathroom).  Here was a family who had just endured one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, sacrificing their own comfort for our sake.

We were preparing for much worse when we left the States.  I was intending to sleep under the stars and wear enough deet to kill a moose in order to avoid mosquitoes.  I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to it, but was expecting it.  Yet a family, far less fortunate than I, gave me their comfort so I could minister as effectively as possible.  Let’s go back and reread 3 John 5-8:

5 Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. 6 They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

Men like Kumar are worthy of commendation.  He is a lot like Gaius, the man praised by John for extending hospitality to guest ministers.  We left our homes “for the sake of the Name,” and Kumar worked with us “so that we may work together for the truth.”

So now when I read 3 John, I think of Kumar and his wonderful family.  I have, on a number of occasions, “told the church about their love,” as I’m doing now.

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These short letters are often overlooked, but there’s some good stuff in there.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on these, save one on 3 John by D A Carson.  Here are some thoughts in seedling form…

Truth, Believed and Lived

“Truth” is an important concept for John.  The word shows up 25 times in his gospel, 9 times in 1 John, but a remarkable 11 times in these two little letters, roughly ever 2.5 verses.  That’s a lot.

What I find interesting is the way John talks about truth.  “Walking in truth,” “whom I love in truth”- I’m not sure I quite get what it means.  It’s obvious, though, that there is a practical, living side to truth.  “Walking in truth” tells us that assenting to facts does not exhaust the goal of the Christian life.  Some of the same themes from 1 John show up in these two letters- obedience, faithfulness, loving brothers and sisters in Christ.  So even if I don’t know exactly what it means to “love in truth,” I think I can do it.

Protecting the Community

Like a number of NT letters, these two epistles are largely about protecting the community of believers, from both influences outside (itinerant false preachers in 2 John) and inside (Diotrephes in 3 John).  I bet if you polled most pastors today regarding their roles in leadership, “protector” might not show up too high on the list.  Yet, most of the letters in the NT were written in part to protect the community from false teachers or teachings.  This is, of course, only one part of church leadership, but it is still an important part.

Protecting from False Teachers

I won’t spend a lot of time here, other than to say this is a non-negotiable for pastors.  I suspect some churches do this well, while others hardly give it a thought.  Not a single church asked me what I would preach on when I used to do guest preaching at various churches when I was in seminary.  Maybe it was enough that I was a Gordon-Conwell student, but you’d think someone would ask.

Protecting from In-house Leaders

3 John tells us about Diotrephes, a leader in the church community.  Diotrephes was not, it seems, a false teacher.  At no point does John say “watch out for his heresy,” which is something he doesn’t mind doing when necessary.  Instead, Diotrephes’ problem was that he wanted to me “the man,” (my colloquial translation of “loves to be first”).  John and other leaders were a threat to his control, so he slandered them and refused to accept fellow believers.  But going beyond that, he would expel people from his church who would dare to accept them.

Diotrephes is an example of a power hungry leader.  These types are a major threat to the health of the church.  In many ways, these guys are more dangerous than false teachers.  Many churchgoers can spot a false teaching, but give them a charismatic leader and they’ll blindly follow.

Hospitality & Itinerant Ministry

I won’t say much here, as I hope to write a separate post on the topic.  I think one reason these letters are often neglected, besides their size, is they both focus on aspects of dealing with itinerant ministers.  It’s not that we don’t have itinerant ministers today, but the social situation is so different.  Travel is easier, checking up on traveling speakers is easier and, generally speaking, guest speakers are invited; they don’t just show up from denominational headquarters with the hopes you’ll put them up.

Regarding 2 John, the church is not to extend hospitality to false teachers.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that you insult them or otherwise act unChristianly (what do you mean that’s not a word?).  I would imagine if the choice was between housing false teachers and letting them be ripped apart by wild animals, John would tell them to open the door.  It’s doubtful the choice came down to that; after all, there are public inns for them to stay in and so on.  But considering most churches met in the largest home available, and that home would probably be the one to house an itinerant speaker, not accepting them in makes a lot of sense.  We don’t get all the particulars in 2 John, which is typical of a situational letter.  But we do get the point; there are limits to hospitality and church leaders should take care to distance themselves from false teachers.

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