Different (1 Thessalonians – part 5)

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. He has taught about the impact of the gospel in chapter 1, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ in chapter 2, and praying for each other to thrive spiritually in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4, he offered some truths that would make a difference in their lives. So now, in chapter 5, he lands the letter underlining some differences that the gospel makes for believers. In a sense, he has come full circle.

How is the church you preach to supposed to be different?

1. Not naïve, but alert & hopeful. How easily we can lose our bearings as believers. Especially as relatively comfortable believers. It is so easy to get caught up in the hype of our society and fall into the naïve trap of thinking, “there is peace and security.”  After all, our country has been free and secure for generations. And the everyday stuff of life is carrying on as it has for as long as we can remember: the sports calendar, the TV series, the progression of seasons, the endless cycle of monotonous news, etc. Yes, our world is declaring certain destruction of the planet and will pat itself on the back for every effort to rescue our future from its terrible fate. Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices continue to buy their beachfront properties while proclaiming the scientific certainty of destructively rising sea levels. And so we must all play along with their panic. But despite all the shouts, most people still have a naïve confidence that nothing will actually change. The news is just noise. There is no credible threat to my safety and sense of peace.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 seems to expect Christians to be different. Christians are supposed to be marked by alertness, discernment, sobriety, readiness and hope. Our faith, hope and love are not typical of humanity in any age. We do not stand apart by pretending all is well or spouting nice Christian platitudes. This world is heading for sudden destruction and wrath. And amid a society that tinkers as the empire heats up, we know our salvation is in Christ, so we encourage and build one another up.

2. Not self-absorbed, but purposeful. How easily we can reflect the relational dynamics of our fallen world. When selfish materialism gripped society, it was easy for Christians to play that game with a smug sense of sanctification (God is blessing me!)  What if society is now becoming enchanted by a new, but still self-serving, moral ideology? Well, it will also be easy for Christians to play that game. Many already are. We only need to learn hypersensitivity to certain moral trigger concepts and remember to celebrate brand-new self-defined and unquestionable identities. The morality of intersectional identity politics is replacing the ethics of liberal democracy. However, Christians will still simply add a Bible verse to their version of it and fit right in. 

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 seems to expect Christians to be different. Like many in the New Testament, this passage describes a community gripped by a counter-cultural perspective that shapes a more purposeful and selfless set of relational dynamics. Instead of a subtle rebellion against leadership, there is to be respect, esteem and love. Instead of interpersonal squabbling, whether the garden fence gossiping of yesteryear or the proactive and unfiltered taking of offence and wholesale interpersonal condemnation of today, Paul’s language of living at peace is radically different. And instead of using the community for my selfish goals (think classic networking in strategic gatherings or contemporary social narcissism on the media platform of your choice), the Christian community differentiates need among people so it can selflessly address each need. A loving Christian community should feel radically different.

3. Not worldly, but distinctly His.  How easily we can lose our distinctness as followers of Jesus. We are like fish swimming in a spiritually fallen fish tank and still assume what we experience is normal. And since our experience defines normality, our conduct will tend to reflect it. We compete. We get our own back. We moan. We can be prayerless, thankless, and unspiritual. We can live only by what we see. We can indulge.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-28 seems to be urging us to be different. There are instructions that counter the list of normal behaviours listed above. And there is the closing benediction, where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify, set apart, make holy, transform, and distinguish. How much? Completely.  How blameless? Every aspect of our being. And is that transformation down to us? No, God is faithful and will surely do it. The Christian church should be radically and progressively more different because we are not called to fix ourselves, but we are called by the One who can bring about the necessary change in us. 

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Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement:

7 Ways Church Helps Healthy Thinking

The last couple of years has created a whole set of experiences that were new to most of us.  Lockdowns, social distancing, virus testing, online church, and so much more.  Whatever we may think of the measures that have been taken by our governments, it is always good to evaluate the impact of circumstances on the health of the church congregation.

Last week I listened to a discussion between two scientists and a clinical psychologist.  One of them raised the issue of churches and “faith communities.”  In a society marked by social isolation, a widespread lack of meaning, lots of anxiety, increasing aggression and polarized society, he noted the potential benefit that participation in a church might have for the thinking of the congregation.     

Without getting “too psychological” – here are seven ways that church participation can help people to think well and live life in a healthy way:

1. Preaching: The Anchor – Preaching is not merely an educational exercise, although good preaching will help people learn, of course.  Regular Biblical preaching also functions as an anchor in the storms of life.  People are bombarded with intense messaging all week, but when the Word of God is preached, they are reminded of ultimate realities.  Everything else may seem upside-down, but that only reinforces the value of preaching as reminding.  God is still God.  God is still good.

2. Singing: The Crowd – After the disruption to congregations meeting, or being able to sing together, I hope that we have all recognized just how significant corporate worship is in the life of a healthy believer.  Whether the “crowd” is twenty people or a thousand people, it does us good to stand together and sing out our worshipful response to God’s goodness.  When that is taken away, believers suffer in numerous ways.

3. Fellowship: The Family – So many in society suffer from having no meaningful relationships.  The statistics are staggering.  Being part of a local church family is incredibly significant with respect to our sense of sanity.  The regular interactions, the sense of belonging, the familiarity of weekly connections, even the warmth of a handshake or hug . . . it all makes a difference.  During the first half of 2021, churches here were allowed to meet.  While others chose not to do so, our church continued to meet. I am sure this made the negative impact of lockdown far less significant for our church family, even if there were numerous inconveniences along the way.  Who can measure the negative impact of isolation psychologically, relationally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually?

4. Service: The Role – Healthy thinking does not simply flow from good teaching input.  Serving refreshments every third Sunday, greeting people on the welcome team, participating in church set up, hosting a homegroup, teaching the 3–6-year-olds, etc., all these specific roles in the life of the church make a difference in the life of those serving too.  When that is taken away for a season, some will struggle with a reduction in their sense of meaning.  It is personally healthy to be contributing to the life of the community.

5. Unity: The Conversation – When people are forced apart, they will tend to lose a sense of conversation and perspective.  Some may lose touch with anything outside their family unit.  Others will keep the TV news on for constant company.  Still, others will select a small set of voices to hear, or distractions to enjoy.  But the church is not a social club uniting like-minded people.  God has a way of bringing different races, different interests, different political views, etc., into one gathering of people.  We need to be engaging with and hearing from each other to help us have a healthy perspective.  Solitude is not God’s design for the primary context in which we should think.

6. Pastors: The Shepherds – Christians need each other’s gifts to stay healthy and to grow spiritually.  And churches also need the feeding, leading, caring, protecting and mentoring of the shepherds too.  The example, the teaching, the perspective, the courage, the gentleness, and the faith of the pastors all have a tangible impact on the members of the flock.  Sometimes this may be felt in a direct and personal challenge, but week by week exposure and encounter is also highly beneficial.

7. Weekly: The Rhythm – How many churches are struggling because the normal schedule was disrupted for too long?  Maybe for some people, the rhythm of life has shifted and they now need to reconsider how healthy it is to try and do life without meaningful church involvement.  Maybe for others, the fear of Covid is still keeping them away from the many healthy benefits of church participation.  After significant disruption, it might take some deliberate effort to re-establish healthy habits as far as the priority of church involvement.

I am making no comment here on what churches should do regarding safety in these Covid-sensitive times – that is another discussion for another day.  I am making a big comment that the church itself is incredibly important for believers to be healthy in every regard. 

The discussion I was listening to was focused on human thinking.  I hope that as we take stock after two years of Covid-19 disruption, we will see how local church involvement is critical for all aspects of a healthy life: mental, psychological, emotional, social, relational, even physical, and of course, spiritual.

What have the last two years taught you about the value of the local church?

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Join me for a journey through the Psalms! One detail to help us read the Psalms Today, and one detail to help us apply the Psalms Today. Hopefully, you will want to then read the Psalm and share your highlights with someone else!

Back to Basics

Happy New Year!  As we head into 2022, I imagine we are more aware than ever that we don’t know what these next months might bring.  We may face worldwide challenges and global concerns.  We may face changes closer to home that we did not anticipate.  We may thrive, or we may struggle.  How should we head into the unknown?  It is always a good idea to check our foundations and get back to basics.

In 1173, they laid the foundations for the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral, Italy.  This freestanding structure took quite a while to complete.  Within five years, the building was up to the second level, and it was already leaning.  The foundation was the problem. Construction was delayed for most of the next century, but by the 1270s, the builders were up to the higher levels and were trying to fix the noticeable tilt by building one side higher than the other.  The tower was finally completed in 1372.  It has survived four earthquakes, and scientists believe it may stand for another two centuries.  But the issue remains – the building is tilted, and the foundation is the problem.

The same is true for us in our Christian life.  We tend to make tweaks at higher levels of our spiritual life.  Perhaps a sophisticated theological nuance, or maybe a clever new personal discipline will fix the issue?  The reality is that whether we have been a Christian for decades or for only a short time, the foundation is the place to make adjustments.  Whether our struggle is overtly spiritual or seems to be disconnected from our personal spirituality – I am thinking about marital issues, relational struggles, emotional stress, etc. – whatever the problem, we always do well to take a look at our foundations.

So what are the foundations of our faith?  We need to evaluate how we answer four basic, foundational questions:

1. Who is God?  The God revealed in the Bible, the Trinity, is different to and better than any other god that humanity has ever imagined.  And yet, how easily our view of God shifts from the biblical revelation of the unique glory-giving, relational, Triune God to a more generic power-God or a more mystical experiential-God.  Too often, we fall into inadequate views of God that diminish the impact of knowing Him in our daily lives.

Thankfully, we can remember that if we want to know what God is like, we need only to look at Jesus.  Jesus came to reveal God to sinners and to rescue sinners for God.  Our struggles in life should push us back to the fundamental reality of spending time growing deeper in our relationship with Jesus.  Making tweaks at level 7 or 8 of our life will not help us anywhere near as much as time spent with Jesus as he reveals God’s heart to us.

2. What is a human?  The Bible reveals to us the wondrous complexity of humanity.  From the beginning, it points to our image-bearing relationality, creativity, and diverse abilities.  It goes on to emphasize our inherent value and worth.  It also underlines our fallenness, as we will see in the next question.  One of our significant problems is that the cultural “water” we swim in every day seeks to blind us to the relational dynamic hard-wired into our very core.

Our world bombards us with the message that our value and worth come from accumulating wealth, knowledge, achievements, capacity, or influence.  So we play the game by the world’s rules and wonder why we struggle and burn out.  Yet deep down we resonate with the idea that our greatest joys and our greatest struggles all happen in the context of our relationships.  Don’t pursue a sophisticated solution to life’s struggles when getting back to basics often helps so much: invest in your walk with the Lord, love your spouse, play with your children, laugh and pray with your friends.

3. What is our problem?  We live after Genesis 3.  The world as we know it is a fallen world.  There is no single moment of our day that is not pulled down by the gravity of fallenness.  And yet, so often, we live and think as if the Fall didn’t make that much difference.  We spot sin in others but believe ourselves to be untouched by so much of it.  Sometimes we become experts at acting like the older brother in Luke 15, condemning the sins of our younger brother while not recognizing how deeply infected we are, too.

How easily we blame circumstances for our struggles.  If only my spouse would change, or the government, or the media, or my church.  If only, if only . . . and yes, there certainly are problems in all of these people and institutions.  But are we dreaming of changes at a higher level of the tower while missing the most profound issue of all?  Sin is the problem, and I am not immune to it!  When we stop to remember how desperate our need is, it drives us back to the foot of the cross, broken and needy.  That is actually a great place to be.

4. What is the solution?  If the ultimate issue in this world is sin, and it is far worse than we have ever grasped, then that means the solution must be far better than we tend to think.  Our problem is not only our guilt and shame but also a hard, stony heart that rebels against God, and the total absence of the life of God through the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel, we have a complete solution!  By God’s grace and through the death of God’s Son on the cross, we have sins forgiven, a new heart bursting with love for Him, and the Spirit of God pouring out God’s love into our hearts.

May we never think ourselves too sophisticated to celebrate the good news of God’s love for us in Christ.  May we never lose the wonder of the cross.  And as we live the Christian life, may we continue to live it by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.  So make sure that you allow the Bible to be a relational nudge that leads you towards a deeper relationship with God.  Make sure that you allow church fellowship to be that relational nudge, too.

Whether we have been following Jesus for eight weeks or eighty years, it does us good to get back to the basics.  Instead of adjusting the building project at level 7 or 8, let’s get down to the foundations and make sure our view of God, ourselves, sin, and living in response to God’s grace is all as biblical as it can be.  We naturally drift away in all of these areas, so let’s be sure to invest in the foundations of our faith for greater spiritual health and ministry fruitfulness this year.

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Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?

The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.

Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?

God’s Great Story and You – Part 4 … What is a Christian?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1, click here for part 2,  click here for part 3.  And here is the final part:

What is a Christian?

The name was originally an insult – a “mini-Christ.” But today the word gets used in so many ways. To really understand what a Christian is, we need to be clear what Jesus invites people to be and what he offers to people.

A follower of Jesus. Jesus invited people to become his followers. That is, to become like apprentices, following him, learning from him, copying him, becoming like him. A Christian is a follower of Jesus.

The problem is that naturally nobody really wants to give up their lives and live for Jesus. Take the example of Nicodemus in John 3. Nic was at the top of the religious, social, economic and cultural totem pole, as it were. He was highly educated, influential, wealthy and successful. But when he came to Jesus to talk about the kingdom of God, Jesus told him that they couldn’t have that conversation until Nic was born again. He literally told the teacher of Israel that he hadn’t even started living as far as God was concerned. In the same passage Jesus says that where the Spirit of God is, you can see the effects (but the implication is that Jesus saw no effects in Nicodemus!)

The bad news for every human is that we have sinned, which means we are guilty and need forgiveness. More than that, we don’t have the Spirit of God uniting us to God in the way we were designed to be connected. And there is more, our hearts are hard, cold and dead toward God.

The good news is that Jesus came to die on the cross, to rise from the dead, and to offer us the solution to these, our deepest problems. Because Jesus died and rose, we can have our sins forgiven, we can have the Spirit of God come to live within us, and we can have our hearts transformed so that we start to love God and want to live for him. When we accept the offer of forgiveness and new life from Jesus, this is called salvation, or being born again.

In light of this amazing offer, what is a Christian?

A Child of God. The Bible speaks about this new life in terms of both birth and adoption. A Christian is someone who has been both born into and adopted into God’s family. We have the Spirit of God within us, meaning that we gradually grow to resemble the character of God and look more and more like Jesus. (But we are also desperately flawed and while we may look nothing like our God at times, our status is secure with him!)

Part of the Bride of Christ. The Bible speaks of Christians as the bride of Christ. This is an amazing image in that it speaks of the closest union possible between Jesus and his followers. The millions of people who have trusted Christ and accepted his offer of forgiveness and life are not just an army of servants, but actually constitute his bride. We are united to him by his Spirit, and we are his most treasured beloved.

A Christian is someone who knows they are not good enough and that they deserve the righteous judgment of God. A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus was who he claimed to be and believes that Jesus fulfilled the mission his Father gave him when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. A Christian is a forgiven sinner, more than that, they are a child of God, part of the bride of Christ, brought into a close and personal relationship with God through Jesus.

A Christian is a follower of Jesus – someone who is both transformed and in the process of being transformed. Christians are works in progress, but works in progress with absolute confidence – not in themselves, but in what Jesus did for them that first Easter, and confident that whatever this life may throw at them, the embrace of Jesus is waiting at the end of this chapter of our story!

God’s Great Story and You – Part 3…Why Does It Matter To Me That Jesus Rose?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1, click here for part 2.  Here is part 3 of the series:

Why Does It Matter To Me That Jesus Rose?

In part 2 we saw how Jesus’ death on the cross achieved so much for us. But in order to see that his sacrifice had been accepted, that his victory had been won, that his mission had been accomplished…Jesus did not stay dead. The hero of the story walks out the tomb victorious and history has been completely changed by that fact.

After Jesus died on the cross, his followers did not assemble to plan the greatest ruse in history and spread a fake rumour about Jesus conquering death. They went into hiding as they mourned his death. They were shocked to meet him again. They didn’t see a ghost, or get a vague apparition. This was not the vain hope of Elvis fans that the king might still be alive somewhere. No, the risen Jesus purposefully met with them and rocked their worlds forever.

For instance, one of his followers, Mary Magdalene, met him on that Easter Sunday morning. She didn’t look up and recognise him until he spoke her name. That moment of recognition was powerful and deeply emotional. Then Jesus said something amazing, he told her that he would be going back to ‘‘my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Jesus always spoke of God as his Father, but this is the first time he spoke of him as ‘your Father…your God.’ Jesus’ death on the cross had achieved what it was meant to achieve, and the resurrection confirmed it … God and humans could now enjoy a reconciled relationship! (See John 20:11-18)

That evening Jesus came to ten of his disciples and filled them with joy. He told them that he would be sending them out to continue his mission from his Father. But one disciple was missing. Thomas heard their report, but he was sceptical. He wanted proof. You probably should too. After all, claims of Jesus rising from the dead are nice, but we can’t live our lives and head into eternity based on fact-less claims. The next week Jesus came to them again, this time Thomas was there. Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas for wanting proof. Instead, Jesus invited him to come forward and touch for himself. This was no ghost, no apparition, no vision. This was Jesus literally raised from the dead. We can’t touch him like that today, but we can investigate the evidence and test the fact of Jesus’ resurrection just like any other fact of history. In fact, if we do we will find the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. (See John 20:19-29)

Because Jesus rose from the dead, this means that the claims of Jesus, and the teachings of Christianity, are built on the foundation of a fact that can be tested. We are not asked to blindly believe in fairy stories. The Christian faith is founded on fact.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, God has confirmed that all Jesus aimed to achieve on the cross was successful. He had paid for sin and satisfied the justice of God. He made a way for humans to come to God and defeated the enemy of our souls and death itself!

Because Jesus rose from the dead, death need no longer be the end of your story. Every other religious figure could teach his followers, but all of them ended up dead and buried. Jesus rose from the dead and so is in a category of his own. If he conquered death himself, then he can conquer death for his followers too.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, it means that this life is not all there is, but also that this life really matters. Christians have been willing to not only live for Jesus, but also to die for him, knowing that there is a life to come that gives great hope in this disease-ridden and violent world. No matter what happens, nothing can take away the hope of a Christian that reaches joyfully beyond suffering and death to the hope of being home with Jesus and more fully alive than ever.

At the same time, because Jesus rose physically, it means that human life is incredibly valuable. The world is not yet made right, but we can fight for what is right and good as we wait for God to purge sin and selfishness from this world and renew the wonderful creation again!