The Arthur Chronicles—No. 15 (Poverty Is Prison)

I had expected to meet Arthur at our favorite coffee shop on Monday afternoon for our regular weekly conversation, but he called mid-morning to ask if we could reschedule.

“I sold my table,” he told me, “and the guy who bought it wants to pick it up this afternoon. Ellie is working, so I need to be here when he comes.”

I think I mentioned that Arthur loves to work with wood, and I knew the table he was talking about. He had found it at an estate auction many years ago. It apparently had not looked like much when he bought it, but beneath several layers of paint and yellowed varnish, he antique walnut dining-tablehad discovered the most beautiful solid walnut.

He had buffed out all the gouges and rough spots with sand paper and steel wool, repaired a loose leg, and attached new drawer pulls and slide mechanisms. Then he applied several coats of tung oil by hand. The result was a stunning piece of furniture now worth ten times what he paid for it.

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The Arthur Chronicles—No. 11

Arthur called on Saturday to tell me we would not be able to meet at our regular time on Monday afternoon. His wife is a breast cancer survivor. She meets with her oncologist for follow-up exams every few months, and Arthur accompanies her. One of those regular Week planningappointments was scheduled for Monday afternoon. Arthur had forgotten about it when we met a week ago.

I thought he might be happy to have a legitimate excuse not to meet with me this week. Some of our recent conversations had taken on an unexpected intensity. That was especially true last week, and Arthur had hinted, at the time, that he might be inclined to take a week off.

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I Want It All

I’ve not had the best of luck with Facebook status updates lately (as I noted in my blog post of November 9). Still, I ran across a series of updates which I published last May (Yes, I keep a file. Do you think I take Facebook a bit too seriously?), and I felt they were worth repeating. In fact, upon reflection, I decided to use them as the basis for a blog post. They will help me say something I have wanted to say for a while.

When I wrote the status update which I published on May 3, I had no idea it would be the first installment in a short series. I don’t recall what prompted it. I only know that, over the course of a week, I published five status updates, all of which conformed to the same pattern.

That is, in each of them, I reflected on the ways my life had been affected by the qualities and characteristics of the major Christian traditions with which I had identified over the years. Instead of saying more about that series of posts, I’ll simply share them with you again, as they appeared on my Facebook wall from May 3 to May 10, 2012.

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If It’s Not Difficult, You’re Not Doing It Right

Life in the Kingdom of God should be fulfilling and rewarding. It should be productive and meaningful. It should be challenging and demanding and sometimes exciting. It should not be easy. In fact, if you find life in the Kingdom of God to be easy, that’s a sure sign you’re not doing it right.

I’m not talking about the difficulties we all face simply because we are human. Everybody gets sick, sooner or later. Everybody is subject to the possibility of life-altering circumstances such as accidents, bereavements, financial reverses, and betrayals. Christians recognize events and experiences like those as the consequences of living in a world turned upside down by human sin and rebellion against God.

I’m talking about an added layer of pain, an additional dimension of difficulty, to which the followers of Jesus are subjected if they are serious about living consistently as citizens of the Kingdom of God. I base this conclusion on a truth which figures prominently in the preaching of Jesus in the Gospels: cross-bearing discipleship.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that following Him (i.e. living in the world as one of His disciples) would not be easy. In fact, to emphasize just how difficult it was going to be, the Gospel of Matthew tells us…

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Matt. 16:24)

We read almost the same words in Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23.

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American Christianity: Right Thing, Wrong Way (Part One)

In the Bible there are numerous examples of doing the right thing in the wrong way, and in each case the response of God is the same:  He doesn’t like it.

Now God is a God of grace. Longsuffering and patient; gentle and merciful; kind and gracious.  As someone has said, in terms we would today consider insensitive, “God looks out for fools and children.”  So when I speak of doing the right thing in the wrong way, I’m not talking about children—either literal children or new Christians who have not matured in the faith.  Nor do I mean those who, for some reason, are mentally incapable of grasping truth and integrating it into life.

I’m talking about people who should know better.  In their case, God’s grace is trumped, as it were, by His sense of indignation and justice.

Why?  Because doing the right thing in the wrong way is not just a personal shortcoming or inadequacy.  In virtually every case it reflects an insensitivity to the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit—which is clear and readily accessible—and that insensitivity yields negative consequences, not only for the individual, but also for the Kingdom of God and the cause of Christ in the world.

Consider the case of Israel in the Old Testament. Upon their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, they are encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses has gone up on the mountain to receive the Law from God.  In his absence, the people don’t know how to make contact with God.  Moses had been their “point man,” so to speak.  With him gone, the people have no physical point of contact.  They need something they can see to remind them of the God they cannot see.  Moses had served that purpose, but Moses is not around.  So they need to come up with a replacement.  (You can read the story in Exodus 32.)

The Israelites were not worshiping a false god.  They knew that the true God had brought them out of Egypt.  They had simply relied too much on Moses to represent God before them.  In his absence, they had nothing to serve that purpose, so they made something.  They were worshiping the true God, but in a decidedly wrong way.

Then, from the New Testament, consider the example of the Pharisees. This group had developed during the period between the Old and New Testaments for the purpose of encouraging the people of Israel to take seriously the Law of God and work diligently at integrating its provisions into every aspect of their lives.

The Pharisees respected God’s law—more than that, they loved it.  They believed that it reflected the holy character of God, and they knew that the Israelites could only be truly satisfied in their relationship with God when they gave the Law of God its rightful place in their daily experience.

But by Jesus’ day, their once honorable love for God’s Law had degenerated into a lifeless legalism more intent on imposing limitations than showing how sensitivity to the Law could be liberating and life-transforming.

So Jesus said to them, “You hypocrites. You gag at the gnat of hairstyles, apparel, and jewelry, and you swallow the camel of gossip, greed, and self- righteousness.”  They had started out with the right motives, but they had lost their way. And by the time Jesus encountered them, they had become a prime example of doing the right thing in the wrong way.

Near the end of His public ministry, Jesus told a parable which, I believe, speaks to this very condition of doing the right thing in the wrong way. Here is the way Luke records it in Luke 19:11-27.

11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas.  [A mina was an amount of money worth three months’ wages]. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

Consider the third servant. He thought he knew what was the right thing.  His master would expect him to return something of what he had been given.  So he took the course of least resistance. If he invested the money, he risked losing it, and how would that look when he was called before his master to give account for his stewardship? So he took the money he had been given and hid it, buried it. At least that way he was sure to have something to return, so he wouldn’t be embarrassed. He didn’t waste it or misuse it. His intention was good. He just did the right thing in the wrong way. And his master was not pleased.

Here’s the way that parable speaks to the 21st century American evangelical church.

The church is the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world.  The church is where the distinctives of the Kingdom are supposed to be cultivated, where we learn how to live by the Kingdom values in the face of pressures—from the world, the flesh, and the devil—to succumb to the influence of the prevailing culture.  The place where we encourage one another to “hang tough, be consistent, don’t surrender, don’t lose heart.”

The church is the place where we embrace and comfort and bandage and console those who are battered and bruised from confrontation with a culture under the control of a power opposed to God and hell-bent on frustrating every attempt on the part of the citizens of the Kingdom to live according to the values and priorities and directives of the King.

The church is supposed to be a living example of the gospel of the Kingdom.  As Lesslie Newbigin has written:

The church is not an end in itself.  ‘Church growth’ is not an end in itself.  The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the Kingdom.

The reality is, however, that instead of being a counter-cultural community, we are taking our cues from the prevailing culture.  And as we do, we are always a step behind the culture so we look like we are hurrying to catch up.

I have only begun to explore this subject, and I shall return to it in my next blog post. Thanks for reading.

The Abuse Of Forgiveness (Part Two)

Some years ago, when I was pastor of a small, rural church, the wife of one of our elders developed a serious illness from which she died within two years.  At an elders’ meeting shortly after her diagnosis, her husband shared with us the difficulty he was experiencing in dealing with this situation.  At that point another elder put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said something like, “I know what you must be feeling just now.”

The truth is, he didn’t know what that young man was feeling.  His wife was healthy; he had never suffered the loss of a member of his immediate family.  His comment, though well-intentioned, was actually insensitive and irresponsible.

That young husband, normally stable in temperament and kind in all his interpersonal relationships, suddenly blurted out in response, “How could you possibly know what I am feeling?  You’ve never experienced anything like this in your life.”

Admittedly the retort was a bit sharp, but under the circumstances it was not only accurate, it was completely understandable.  And even though the brother who thought he was offering comfort was momentarily stunned, it was not forgiveness which he needed to extend to this young man who was in such deep pain himself.  It was caring love and compassionate understanding.

I mention this incident only because, as I discussed it later with the elder who had made the ill-conceived attempt at offering comfort, he assured me that the matter was settled.  As he told me, “I have forgiven him” for his “outburst”.  Contemporary distortions of the biblical concept of forgiveness encourage, I fear, this sort of insensitivity.

MORE CONTEMPORARY MISUNDERSTANDINGS

When we are encouraged to resolve experiences of pain by extending forgiveness to the person or persons we perceive to have hurt us, we frequently avoid examining our own role in the situation.  Whenever we forgive anyone, we must first determine the person’s culpability in the matter in order to justify extending forgiveness.  In the process we very often overlook our own culpability and need for forgiveness.  Or we even fail to see that, as in the case I related above, sometimes there is no blame to assign and thus no forgiveness warranted.

I repeat this very important principle—anytime we contemplate an extension of forgiveness, we must necessarily assign guilt, for where there is no guilt, there is no need for forgiveness.  In the complex sphere of human interpersonal relationships, we need to be extremely careful about assigning guilt or blame in any situation.  Assigning guilt may simply be a means by which the matter can be resolved in our own minds.  We assign guilt.  We forgive.  The matter is resolved.

SUMMARY

Any discussion of human forgiveness must begin with an understanding of divine forgiveness.  We are able to forgive those who have wronged us because we appreciate the magnitude of our own forgiveness by God.  Moreover, our forgiveness of others is patterned after God’s forgiveness of us.

That is, as God extends forgiveness only in the face of our indisputable need for it, so we  ourselves extend forgiveness (and indeed we are able to extend it) only in those cases where an actual offense has occurred.

As God extends forgiveness immediately to everyone who recognizes a need for it and calls upon Him to forgive, so we extend forgiveness, without hesitation, whenever, and as often as, it is requested by anyone who has offended us.

As God extends forgiveness for the benefit of the offender and not for His own benefit, so we forgive because that forgiveness will liberate those who have offended us from the burden of their offense.  We should never extend forgiveness in the hope that such an action will contribute to our own spiritual growth.  We extend forgiveness because God has already been at work within us, by His Spirit, cultivating those characteristics of growth and maturity without which forgiveness is not possible in the first place.  Our willingness to forgive those who ask our forgiveness is a reflection of our spiritual maturity, not its cause.

And finally, even as God is able to forgive only those who recognize their need of His forgiveness and call upon Him for it, we are able to offer forgiveness only to those who acknowledge their offense and request it (Luke 17:1-4).  “Forgiveness” which is not acknowledged and received by the offending party is not genuine forgiveness at all.  It may make us feel better, but it is not really forgiveness.

God can do such a work in our lives that we are no longer in pain because of a particular offense, even one that is intentional and indisputable.  We may develop an attitude of genuine willingness to forgive the offender, but forgiveness cannot be extended until its need is acknowledged and its benefits accepted by the offender.

CONCLUSION

When a Christian has been wronged by another party, and that party, having acknowledged and confessed the wrong, comes in repentance to ask forgiveness, however great the wrong may have been, the Christian’s only appropriate response is to extend forgiveness immediately and completely.

If, however, the perceived offender seems unaware of the offense or is unwilling to acknowledge culpability, we must not come too hastily to the conclusion that forgiveness is in order.  Truth be told, the “offender” may not be guilty.  The problem may really be ours after all.  Or, in the case of a genuine wrong, until the Holy Spirit convicts the offender of wrongdoing and prompts him or her to repent and ask forgiveness, any attempt on our part to extend unsought forgiveness will likely only exacerbate the problem.

In the course of our daily lives as Christian believers, we all experience pain and disappointment.  Some of it we bring on ourselves, but much of it we simply don’t deserve.  How do we deal with those hurts we don’t deserve?  We open ourselves up to the ministry of the Holy Spirit within us to cultivate those Christian graces which Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5).  This is genuine inner healing, and it is possible whether or not our offender is willing to acknowledge wrongdoing.

As we allow the Holy Spirit to fill and control us, He soothes our spirits with “peace that passes all understanding.”  In this process of spiritual growth, we are enabled to love even those who have hurt us most deeply.  Then, when God makes our offenders aware of their wrongdoing, we can respond to their requests for forgiveness immediately and wholeheartedly.

Make no mistake about it, the willingness and ability to forgive is absolutely essential for citizens of God’s kingdom.  In fact, an unwillingness to forgive betrays a failure to appreciate one’s own forgiveness by God.  Forgiveness, however, is not a means of self-improvement.  Genuine forgiveness is possible only because the Spirit of God has cultivated genuine Christian graces in our lives.  It is this ministry of God’s Spirit which enables us to rise above our circumstances and to live abundantly even in the face of undeserved pain.

The Abuse Of Forgiveness (Part One)

Forgiveness abused?  How could that be?  Isn’t forgiveness a vital dimension of the Christian experience, the ability to accept and extend forgiveness a characteristic of Christian spirituality?  If so, then how can something so good and noble be abused?

The terms forgive and forgiveness are familiar to every Christian.  It is impossible, in fact, to consider oneself a Christian apart from an awareness of what is involved in confessing and receiving God’s forgiveness.  Likewise, we Christians recognize that an evidence of our forgiveness by God is our willingness to extend forgiveness to persons who “trespass against” us.  These are elementary Christian truths, emerging repeatedly throughout the scriptures.

One of the most extensive passages in the New Testament on the subject of forgiveness is a parable told by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 18:21-35.  The point of that story seems obvious.  As citizens of God’s kingdom, Christians have experienced God’s forgiveness in abundance.  Our human sinfulness constitutes a debt against God which we cannot hope to repay, yet God forgives it all, wipes the slate clean, whenever we acknowledge our need for His forgiveness.

Because we have been forgiven so great a debt, the story goes on to teach, we kingdom citizens should be quick to forgive any who have hurt or offended us.  In no case are we to withhold forgiveness from a brother or sister who acknowledges his or her wrongdoing and calls upon us for forgiveness.  (Jesus stated this principle more directly in Luke 17:1-4.)

We have hurt God by our sin, yet God has forgiven us.  Because we have been forgiven, we extend forgiveness to those who hurt us.  It’s as simple as that.  What, then, is the problem?

The problem is that this simple and fundamental Christian truth, “forgive as you have been forgiven,” is misunderstood and misapplied by many well-meaning, contemporary Christian teachers.  The consequences of such teaching in the lives of earnest, unsuspecting hearers are, I believe, unfortunate and possibly dangerous.

HUMAN FORGIVENESS BASED ON DIVINE FORGIVENESS

The whole of the New Testament teaching on the subject of forgiveness either assumes or declares one fundamental premise:  human forgiveness is based upon and patterned after divine forgiveness.  That is, what we understand about forgiving those who have hurt us, we learn by observing the way God forgives us when we hurt Him.  Thus any discussion of human forgiveness must begin with a review of God’s forgiveness.

Here are some of the things the New Testament teaches about the nature of God’s forgiveness.

1.  Every human being needs to be forgiven by God.  There is no question of our guilt before God (Romans 3:23).  We are all guilty of offenses toward God which warrant, indeed require, God’s forgiveness if our relationship with Him is to be restored.

2.  God always forgives us when we seek His forgiveness.  There is never a chance that God will say, “That sin is so gross and heinous.  I just don’t know if I can forgive it.”  No, he always forgives.

3.  When God forgives us, it is always for our benefit, not for His.  While it is true that God forgives us because of His innate characteristics of faithfulness and righteousness (1 John 1:9), it is not true that the act of forgiveness causes these characteristics, or any others, to develop in God.  God forgives us because of who and what He is, not because of what He desires to become.

4.  There are some people whom God will never be able to forgive.  They are those who never acknowledge their need for God’s forgiveness, who never ask Him to forgive them.  The New Testament is clear that God’s forgiveness, while abundantly available to all in potentiality, is extended, in actuality, only to those who request it.

ERRORS IN CONTEMPORARY TEACHING

This is where any contemporary discussion of the subject of human forgiveness must begin—with an understanding of the nature of God’s forgiveness.  And this is precisely the point at which misunderstanding and distortion enter much of the current teaching on this subject.

The contemporary Christian scene is overrun with speakers and writers who apparently believe that theological truths and psychological principles, while important for Christians to understand, need to be simplified and “popularized” so that they can be expressed “in layman’s terms” and understood by the masses.

This kind of thinking suffers from two major flaws.  First, the average Christian is able to comprehend far more of the “complexities” of theological and psychological truth than the average writer/speaker/publisher seems to believe.  Second, the speaker or writer who attempts to popularize the theological or psychological principles is often neither a theologian nor a psychologist.  The result, all too often, is that the simplified, popularized principle suffers from fundamental misunderstanding by the popularizer and is therefore simply inaccurate.

This is precisely the case with much of the contemporary teaching and writing on the subject of human forgiveness.  Consider some of the ways in which contemporary thought on this subject betrays a lack of comprehension regarding the concept of divine forgiveness on which our understanding of human forgiveness must be based.

First of all, many of the “pop-psychologists” misunderstand the purpose of forgiveness.  They call on Christians to extend forgiveness toward others because of the benefit which the forgiver will receive from the act.  We are exhorted to forgive those whom we perceive to have done us wrong in order to gain inner freedom and peace of mind.

Further, a willingness to forgive is often added to a list of other attitudes or actions which Christians are instructed to cultivate as a means of achieving victory or maturity in the spiritual life.  Unfortunately, the items on these lists vary from speaker to speaker and writer to writer.  When they are compiled, the result is a formidable array of expectations which can become burdensome instead of liberating.  They degenerate into a form of legalism.

Then again, those who advocate forgiveness as the way to handle every “glitch” in interpersonal relationships foster a mentality which can be unhealthy and dangerous.  The encouragement to approach every difficult or unpleasant situation with an attitude of forgiveness develops a tendency to think always in terms of who is “right” and who is “wrong.”  Sometimes, however, we suffer pain through our own misunderstanding or insensitivity. In those cases, it is presumptuous to offer forgiveness to another who, in reality, has done no wrong.  Forgiveness, in those situations, is not called for.  Patience, understanding, and love are.

[The conclusion of this article will be published as my next post. Please reserve judgment on my point of view until you read that. Thanks.]

The Ethic Of The Kingdom (Part 2)

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus met in an “upper room” with the twelve men who had been His closest associates during three years of ministry. They had gathered there to eat what would be their final Passover meal together. According to John’s Gospel, early in the evening, after the meal had barely begun, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured some water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.  In that simple, awkward, intimate, and embarrassing act, Jesus, the Master Teacher, provided an object lesson to illustrate the essence of what He had been trying to teach them about kingdom living for the past three years.

He had already done that with words. That is, He had already reduced the heart of the “kingdom ethic” to a short, pithy, memorable declaration.  Here’s the way Matthew records it in chapter 22 of his Gospel—

One of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, tested Jesus with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

There you have it.  The essence of the “kingdom ethic” is the law of love.  And Jesus made sure that we wouldn’t interpret that to mean a nebulous, spiritualized love of God by expanding the concept of love to include the love of people, which, when you think about it, is the practical proof that we really love God.

Jesus was saying that, if I am a citizen of the kingdom of God, I will want to love you as much as I love me.  And if you are a kingdom citizen, you will want to love me as much as you love you.

But beyond that, the ethic of the kingdom requires that we extend love to people outside of our families, outside of our circle of friends, even outside the community of faith—to dirty people, hostile people, thoughtless people, ungrateful people—people who will lie to us, hurt us, take advantage of us, and laugh while they are doing it.

“Neighbor love” / “kingdom love” means that I care about you with the same intensity I care about myself; I work as hard to help you meet your noble goals as I work to meet my own; I elevate your need to the level of my own.

And that’s difficult to do when we are both applying for the same job, or when my physical or emotional or financial situation is so severe that I can barely see beyond it.

Still, this is the law of love on which the ethic of the kingdom is based.  And it can be inconvenient, unrealistic, uncomfortable.  For those reasons, it is easy to rationalize our way out of compliance and regard the whole thing as laudable theory but impractical, if not impossible, to implement.

I think that Jesus knew we would say that, and that’s why the Master Teacher, on the night before His crucifixion, took a towel and a bowl and washed His disciples’ feet.

Make no mistake; this was not mere symbolism.  These men had been walking dusty streets and trails all day wearing sandals.  Their feet were dirty.  When they assembled in the upper room to eat the Passover meal with Jesus, they reclined around a low table just a few inches off the floor.  A courteous host would have provided a servant to care for the thankless task of washing the feet of his guests before they reclined to eat.  But there was no host here.  Jesus was a guest in this room the same as His disciples.  Besides that, He was their Rabbi, their teacher, their Lord.  No reasonable person would have assumed that it was the teacher’s job to wash the feet of his students.

But that’s exactly what Jesus did.  The master became a servant, and in so doing He showed us what He meant when He established the law of love as the ethic of the kingdom of God.  A citizen of the kingdom is, first and foremost, a servant.

For three years, Jesus had been telling His disciples that following Him might require them to give up their lives for the sake of the Gospel.  That’s what He meant when He said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, He must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”  It’s important to know how to die.  All of Jesus’ faithful disciples, with the exception of John, died as a martyr for the faith.

But when Jesus took the towel and basin and washed His disciples’ feet, He made it clear that it is important to know how to live as well.  Most of us will not be called upon to surrender our lives for the sake of the Gospel.  Jesus calls all of us, however, to experience the unspeakable joy that comes from service motivated by love.

In his really excellent book called Celebration of Discipline, the Quaker author Richard Foster wrote, in this regard—

In some ways we would rather hear Jesus’ call to deny father, mother, houses and lands for the sake of the Kingdom than His (emphasis on servanthood).  Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure.  If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom.  But in service, we are banished to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.

Every Sunday morning, immediately following the sermon, we Anglicans stand and confess our faith using the words of the historical Nicene Creed.  This, in part, is what we affirm concerning Jesus:  He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God… of one being with the Father; through Him all things were made.

When we think about Jesus eating a last Passover meal with His disciples in that “upper room” on the night before He died, we probably first recall that, on that occasion, Jesus established the pattern for the communion meal which we share together every Sunday morning.  And indeed we should think in those terms since the prayer book reminds us that “on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread… (and) after supper He took the cup of wine.” 

But before the bread and before the wine, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”  Then John reminds us that Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made, “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around him,… poured water into a basin and began to wash” the feet of men whom He had created.

The ethic of the kingdom is simply love put to work through caring, compassionate service.  By selecting servanthood as the model of the kingdom ethic, Jesus made it clear that the pathway of the king might be costly… to our pride, our security, and maybe a whole lot more.  But if you and I are serious about being disciples of Jesus in the twenty-first century, then amid all the clamor and noise of our technological culture, we’ll hear the voice of Jesus say, “Get a towel and a bowl, and follow me.”

The Ethic Of The Kingdom (Part 1)

The men who gathered in the “upper room” with Jesus on the night before He was crucified had been with Him three years. They had walked with Jesus over the length and breadth of that land, from Jerusalem in Judea through Samaria to Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee.  From Caesarea Philippi down the east side of the Jordan River then across to Jericho and Bethany and back to Jerusalem. It had been an amazing journey. They had seen and heard some astounding things.

Could they ever forget how Jesus had made sick people well, fed a huge crowd with a young boy’s lunch, walked on the Sea of Galilee as if it were pavement, and even raised some people from the dead?  But if the things He did left them astonished and amazed, many of the things he said left them perplexed and bewildered.

For example, there was something Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”  He talked about it so much that we have to regard it as the central theme of His ministry.  Most of his parables, those simple little stories out of everyday life which He used to teach profound spiritual truth, focused on some aspect of the Kingdom of God—who were its citizens, what was its character, how did one enter it, when would it be a reality on earth.  And the disciples had difficulty with many of these concepts.

They thought Jesus was talking about the Kingdom in terms of real estate.  He was actually talking more about the power and authority which He, the King, wanted to exercise over the lives of his followers, the citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus was  also talking about a physical and political Kingdom which He would bring to earth one day, but the disciples thought He meant that it was going to appear immediately.  They completely missed Jesus’ point that, before the Kingdom could come in power and glory, the King had to be crucified, and then, for a period of time, the Kingdom of God would exist mainly in the hearts and lives of Christian believers, awaiting a day in the future when the King would return from heaven as King of kings and Lord of lords.

It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and return to heaven that the disciples began to understand completely what Jesus had meant when He taught them to look at all of life from the perspective of a “kingdom citizen.”  That may help to explain why, during Jesus’ lifetime, His disciples were often confused by His teaching.  Without this “kingdom consciousness” many of Jesus’ teachings do seem complicated and unrealistic.

For example, while the “conventional wisdom” teaches that success is often measured by wealth, it was Jesus the King who said “blessed are the poor.”  Conventional wisdom tells us that, if somebody hurts us, we should hurt them back.  Jesus, the King, taught that we should not return evil for evil, but rather pray for our enemies.  Conventional wisdom suggests that the more “stuff” we have, the happier we’ll be.  Jesus, the King, taught that we shouldn’t “lay up treasures on earth” since our hearts will be wherever our treasure is.  Jesus came to turn the conventional wisdom on its head, and it’s easy to see why more than one person has called this kingdom, about which Jesus taught, “the upsidedown kingdom.”

In His death and resurrection, Jesus made it possible for people to experience freedom and forgiveness and to become citizens of His kingdom.  And throughout His earthly life and ministry, Jesus devoted Himself to preparing and equipping His disciples to live like kingdom citizens and to preach “the good news of the Kingdom” to the whole world.  Even on that first Maundy Thursday, the night before He was crucified, Jesus remained faithful to the task of linking His suffering and death, just hours away now, with the truth about the kingdom of God.

Here’s the way Luke records it in chapter 22 of his Gospel.

When the hour came (to eat the Passover), (Jesus) took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.  He said to them, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you, before I suffer, for I tell you, I will not eat it (again) until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God… You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.

I began this post by imagining what must have been going on in the minds of the disciples of Jesus as they gathered in that “upper room” to share a final Passover meal with Jesus.  The Gospels make it clear that Jesus knew the time of His death was fast approaching.  It’s unclear how much His disciples understood.

They may well have misinterpreted what He meant when told them, as Luke records, that He would not eat the Passover with them again until it was fulfilled in the Kingdom.  John writes of an exchange between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus says that He will soon be going away. Peter asks where He is going, then vows that he will follow Jesus even to imprisonment and death.  I know that Peter could be awfully brash on occasion, but I wonder if he would have made such a bold commitment of loyalty if he had known that it would be put to the test in a matter of hours.

What we do know, from John’s account, is that, early in the evening, after the meal had barely begun, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured some water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.  And in that simple, awkward, intimate, and embarrassing act, Jesus, the Master Teacher, provided an object lesson to illustrate the essence of what He had been trying to teach them about Kingdom living for the past three years.

What He taught them in that single act of humble service was the ethic of the Kingdom, and I’ll say much more about that in my next post.

God Save Us From The Successful Church

Almost everybody wants to be successful at what they do, whether it is a one-time effort or a career; whether it is vocational or recreational. Most people like to believe that anything to which they devote their time and energy can be viewed in retrospect as a success.

How do you measure the success of a church? The Christian church (generic, worldwide) and Christian churches (denominational, local) purport to follow the teachings and example of Jesus. When you consider that He was crucified, and all but one of His twelve Apostles died as martyrs for their faith, the question of what constitutes success becomes somewhat, er, problematic.

For Americans, success is almost always measured quantitatively, and most of the time bigger is better. That mindset has carried over to our thinking about the church, and its effect has been negative in the extreme. Since we equate success with size, the most successful churches must be the largest ones. And since we all want to be successful, we operate under the guiding principle that we must always be getting bigger.

The point of this post is not to suggest that large churches are inherently wrong or bad. Rather, I want to suggest that churches dedicated to the idea that growth and size are the principal characteristics of a successful church are thereby locked into a business model when they should be following a Kingdom model for the life and ministry of the church.

Here’s what I mean. Success in the business world almost always means growth. To be successful in the eyes of their stockholders, businesses need to generate more revenue this year than last. That generally requires monitoring the consuming public and giving them what they want, only more of it. Generally that means tweaking the recipe or adding a product line or improving a feature or updating the packaging. But it almost never involves any changes that intentionally result in a decline in revenue or market share. That’s because businesses do not exist to serve the community in any altruistic sense. They exist to make money for their investors. Sometimes those purposes intersect; often they don’t.

Churches exist for one purpose—to serve as agents of the Kingdom of God on earth. They fulfill this role in a variety of ways. They serve as a setting for worship and fellowship; they provide counsel and guidance; they meet needs for which no other organization or agency is as well equipped. Much, if not most, of the church’s task relates to discerning and addressing needs of people who are not even part of the church. That’s why Archbishop William Temple once famously noted that “the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Sometimes a church’s faithfulness in carrying out its mandate from God to be the agent of the Kingdom will result in an increase in membership. Some of those who have seen Jesus in the ministry of a church will choose to follow Christ as well, and they may be drawn into a meaningful relationship with that particular church. They may choose to identify with another church, however, and that should be perfectly okay.

Unlike department stores or hamburger restaurants or insurance companies, churches are not in competition with each other… or at least they shouldn’t be. But the business model, to which most churches are committed, in which their success is determined by their growth and their size, compels churches to think of themselves as competitors in a contest rather than as partners in a common cause.

As an agent of the Kingdom of God, a church may sometimes be called by God to move in an entirely new direction with its ministry in order to be more faithful as a steward of both the grace of God and the material resources which He provides. For example, what if God wanted a church to abandon its plans for the renovation of its building in order to direct those funds toward the establishment of a new church in another part of the city? Or what if a church recognized a legitimate need in its neighborhood for a homeless shelter or a home for unwed mothers or a pre-school for working mothers of limited means? And what if the only way the church could meet that need was to cut back on plans to pave its parking lot or underwrite the tuition costs for its members who attend Christian school?

In each of these cases, following a business model might very well result in a different course of action than following a Kingdom model. You see, God’s purposes for a church may not be best served by the commitment of energy and resources to programs and expenditures which are primarily focused on increasing the number of people in the church’s pews. Faithfulness to Kingdom purposes might require course-corrections or restructured priorities. After all, the images which the New Testament employs to characterize the church are more dynamic and less institutional; the church is portrayed more as an organism than an organization. Organisms move and change. Yes, they can also grow, but growth is a by-product of life, not the focus of existence.

Let me be clear. I am not opposed to growth. I want to see as many people as possible come to faith in Christ and follow Him in faithful discipleship. Ultimately, however, it is up to God to call people to Himself and to enable them to recognize their need and embrace the truth as it is found in Jesus. It is up to the church to serve Christ and His Kingdom, and faithfulness in that endeavor may actually be counterproductive to rapid expansion and explosive growth.

Of this I am absolutely convinced. A church which needs to increase its membership in order to prove its success or to generate revenue in order to fund an agenda that is more institutional than visionary is likely committed more to a business model than to a Kingdom model. When it comes to planning and programming, the church needs to answer only one question: In what way will this program, this facility, this expenditure enhance our effectiveness and increase our faithfulness as an agent of the Kingdom of God?