Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’
“There was hardly anything I did that did not involve language: the Word of God provided not information but revelation. Jesus told stories and taught and prayed, not to entertain us or inspire us but to draw us into a participating, believing, listening, loving way of life that was, above all, local and personal: prayerful. I wanted to do that too. A way of using language in which God, whether implicitly or explicitly, had the first word.”–from The Pastor, 239
I am, and have been, reading Mere Churchianity by the late Michael Spencer, aka the Internet Monk. I really do not think it is possible at this point to write how much I love this book. Michael had a way with words and it continued in this book.
The funny thing about the world is what the church is and what the church does. Churches are strange creatures and, likely, more often reflect the character of the preacher than that of the Head, Jesus. Frankly, I do not know which I dislike more: the church or preachers. Having been a preacher myself for the better part of fifteen years I am erring on the side of caution and disliking the church more.
Preachers are not far behind though.
There’s a relatively new congregation in my community. They are putting the finishing touches on a nice, shiny new building. They are also having a big fair to attract new people–I’m assuming children who will be brought by their screaming parents. Whatever.
I know of another church that proudly announced on its marquee: New Contemporary Service–as if that is the honey needed for the flies. Whatever.
I know another church that, now that there’s a healthy and substantial flow of cash, is fixing a hole in a roof–as if fixing a hole in a roof will suddenly convert the world to Jesus. Whatever.
I can be critical of the church now–as if I was soft on it before. I haven’t had a church home for nearly a year. I’m not altogether happy about that; nor I am altogether sad either. Like I said, church is a funny thing and laying low for a while has given me an opportunity to spy. I’m not so sure I like Big Church (as in Big Oil, Big Money). Church is way too much of a chore, far too much aggravation, and not nearly enough of what I am looking for. That’s not arrogance; that’s reality. What I’m looking for is a church that has a big sign out front that simply says: Friends of Jesus, Friends of People. Welcome.
Here’s what Michael Spencer wrote, “There is little need for large churches stuffed with satisfied audiences. There is a great need for a movement of disciples going into the overlooked places of the world to see and serve the Kingdom of God” (101). I could not possibly agree more. But this will not be the experience of the church so long as the church is comfortable inside itself.
For far too many people church is what we do on Sunday with little regard for actual discipleship created by Jesus. Comfort is the key. The role of the preacher, at least so far as I can see, is to preach the world of God with such power of the Spirit that the comfortable people become agitated and the agitated people are comforted. The Scripture is, after all, a double-edged sword.
I’m still looking for a church that is all about Jesus–by that I mean, of course, that there is a deliberate focus on what Jesus is doing, who Jesus is, and how these two things collaborate and inform, shape and conform, empower and reform the steps we take as disciples of Jesus. I’m looking for a church that is not satisfied.
I am not looking for a church that ‘meets my needs.’ Only Jesus can meet my needs. I’m not looking for a church where I can get helpful hints for living a better life or having a better marriage or anything of that sort. I’m looking for a church where Jesus is the first and last word each week and where Jesus is the substance we meet in the middle. I’m looking for a church where the preacher insists and expects that I open my Bible when the Scripture is read. I’m looking for a church where the preacher, the elders, the communion, the worship–everything–says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When I go to church I do not need to see myself, I need to see Jesus.
Well maybe I’m going on too much about this. It’s easy to be critical of the church and terribly difficult to jump in and be so much a part of the church that these complaints are overwhelmed with love. The church cannot be what I want the church to be, the church can only be what the church is and is becoming by the grace of God. And in this I believe is the lesson Jesus has been teaching me for the past year: love the church regardless of what the church may appear to be in your myopic vision. Love the church like Jesus does.
Simply put, what the church doesn’t need is me and all my bitterness, whatevers, and criticism. What the church needs is Jesus.
“To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in his own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God.”
–DA Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, 29
I happened across the blog of an author tonight whom I had never heard of before. I recognized some of the names associated in one way or another with the author so I hung around for a bit and did some reading. I discovered this author had recently published a new book he calls Rediscovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity.
The author is Jonathan Brink. I have never heard of him before, as I said, but I did recognize the names of his endorsers and his detractors. Having had my own issues in the past with Ken Silva, I can say that to an extent Mr Brink has my sympathies. I suppose one could say that, as a rule, if Ken Silva is one of your detractors then I will give you the benefit of the doubt and welcome to the club.
The problem is that Silva is an equal opportunity judge and jury and Brink set himself up by using the words ‘reconstructing’ and ‘new’ alongside the word ‘christianity.’ I’d like to give a balanced, quick review of the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his blog.
I took the time to read Brink’s 26-page sample chapter* that he has graciously posted at his website because, well, that’s what I do. I read. I’m a little on the fence regarding some of what I read (and I was also a little taken aback when I read in the comment section that he hadn’t read The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton–even though that comment was written, evidently, two years ago) and I’m not able to make a complete judgment about the contents of the book. He begins by reminding us that we live in an age of questions–questions about the very traditions upon which we have nursed as Christians. He opens by writing this:
But what is the inherent nature of the Gospel? What actually happened in the Garden of Eden? In order to follow Jesus, it would seem obvious that we would want to know exactly what Jesus is doing on the cross, what problem he is solving, and what it means to humanity. Yet there is no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel. Scholars and theologians have been wrestling with this tension within the Christian tradition for roughly 1,700 years.
I think people are going to have problems with this. I really do. I strongly disagree there is ‘no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel.’ Yes, indeed, scholars have wrestled (and rightly so) with Scripture and definitions. And yes, indeed, there are a lot of theories about the implications of these beliefs. But the basic suppositions of the Gospel, even at the most basic, creedal level, are not really challenged (and probably shouldn’t be). Christians still believe Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the grave (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).
I am not so sure, and even Brink equivocates just a bit, that we need to seriously rethink 1,700 years worth of theological reflection. He has questions about whether or not many of the theological formulas that have been created during this period of time actually address the correct question. Thus he writes:
This book suggests a provocative possibility: much of our historical understanding of the problem is wrong. The basic assumptions we make about what is happening in the Garden of Eden are skewed by the very nature of the problem. We locate the problem in the wrong place and end up trying to resolve a problem, which doesn’t actually exist. (p 6 of the pdf sample chapter)
I suppose that in order for new theories to be put forward, the historical understandings have to be cast in this light. We cannot suggest a better way forward unless we cast aspersion on all that has led to this point. This is a very post-modern way of going about things and it is very popular among many so-called emergent theologians and preachers (although I don’t think Brink categorizes himself as either). Challenging ideas is fine; I do so all the time. Suggesting that they are altogether wrong–well, there are a lot of preachers and theologians who will abandon Brink at this point.
Brink also has to do some re-working of the first three chapters of Genesis–which he does (see p 16-19 of the downloadable pdf). Here I believe Brink asks some important questions, and I am curious as to how he will answer them. I have no problem with questions being asked and, to be sure, I am always thrilled when someone, anyone, actually opens their Bible and wrestles with the story–a chore that many who are firmly ensconced in those 1,700 years of theological strictures refuse to undertake since it is much easier to whip out a quote from Calvin or Spurgeon to bolster one’s position: Calvin said it; I believe it; that settles it.
Yeah, that works.
As I neared the end of Brink’s 26 pages, I came across this paragraph:
And finally the story presents the atonement – how God is actually reconciling humanity to God. To understand the human story means confronting our traditional notions of what is happening on the cross, to ask, “Where is the problem located?” Once we answer this question, a new understanding of the atonement opens up. We are invited to discover the depth of what is happening, to shudder at the sheer magnitude of love it reveals, and embrace it with open arms. The story reveals God’s central concern is not a punitive sense of justice for breaking a law, but an overriding concern for the consequence of death. (p 21 of the downloadable pdf)
There’s more to it than this, and I don’t want to be unfair to Brink, but here I might be disinclined to go all the way with his idea. The problem as I see it is that we don’t necessarily need to confront the traditional understandings of the cross and we do not need a new understanding of the atonement. I have no problems with the idea that there is more than one ‘theory of atonement’. Nor, for that matter, do I mind someone opening our eyes to another aspect of God’s work in Jesus. What I object to is the idea that all those theories that went before need replacing or scuttling. Maybe Brink is not being so drastic, but it’s hard not to think he is. And, to be sure, he will have a lot of work to do in order to convince people that 1,700 years of theological reflection have been wrong and that, aha!, he suddenly has it all figured out.
That’s a tall order for anyone. I’m genuinely interested to see how he pulls it off, and how he resolves it for a new generation of pilgrims.
A better approach, I think, is to see all those theories (of atonement) that went before as bits and parts of a comprehensive atonement that God enacted in Christ. None of them is comprehensive, none is exclusive of the others. Together they all help explain what God was doing in Jesus and what he is doing in us. I agree wholeheartedly with Brink that the cross expresses God’s concern for the consequences of death; yes, say it so. But the cross dealt with what caused death (sin); resurrection dealt with death. Or, so says the apostle,
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, NIV)
I will be interested to see how Brink treats the Resurrection of Jesus since it was only mentioned once in the 26 pages I read and even then it had nothing, necessarily, to do with Jesus’s Resurrection. I hope he has a very large section on Resurrection because in the sort of undertaking he is proposing it will surely be necessary.
I also agree with Brink that we need to be set free from religion. Too many Christians are far too content to live in a scripted religious experience where everything is contained inside neat little compartments that never ever mix together and share ideas or educate or inform one another. Religion is typically what destroys preachers who have been called by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel, who have been called to tell and retell the story.
Frankly, I’m not sure we need a new Christianity–maybe, better, we just need people who are willing to live the story already there (you know, the ‘take up your cross, deny yourself, follow me’ kind of stuff). Frankly, I am not so sure we need to reconstruct a new anything since we are utterly incapable of doing so anyhow (no mention of the Holy Spirit in those 26 pages either; I realize he couldn’t include everything in 26 pages so I am not being overly critical, I’m just saying…)
Brink seems rather intent on redefining some of the terms we use in the church, but I don’t know that such redefining is necessary either. And don’t get me wrong, I understand there is a disconnect between what the Bible says and the way many Christians live. I get it; really I do. I was fired by a church in whom that very disconnect was incarnate in an unimaginable, undeniable, and epic way.
I also understand that suffering and pain and injustice need to be addressed at a much deeper level than preachers have dared to think necessary and possible in the past. The so-called tried and true Sunday school clichés first uttered by John Calvin and perpetuated by the Neo-Reformed scholars of this age no longer work on a people who have questioned and will continue to question everything. One of the great aspects of my generation’s rebelliousness towards authority is the freedom to question, challenge, everything. In other words, you will not control me, you will not tell me what to do or believe; I will figure it out for myself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, thank you very much.
It may be that I’ll end up agreeing with you or Calvin. It may be that I will reject you and Calvin (especially Calvin). But I will work that out on my own in the company of fellow pilgrims–if only I could find a group of pilgrims willing to live in the turmoil of the doubt that we call faith (see Matthew 28:17).
Brink will have no problem convincing some, will reap the scorn and hatred of others who are already convinced he is a heretic, and will, hopefully, find even more who will read what he says and shout ‘hooray!’ when they read something brilliant, will weep when they read something silly, and will search the Scripture when they come across something that challenges their understanding of Jesus, Christianity, and faith.
Brink claims to have gone back to Scripture in order to write this book. He also claims that much of what he saw in Scripture just didn’t seem to line up with some of the traditional teachings. Therefore I believe it is equally fair and important for those who read this book to go back to Scripture also and see if what Brink has written squares up with what Scripture, the Bible, says. From what I read in 26 sample pages, I think there are going to be some issues.
But we can give him a read and test that for ourselves.
*my reflections concern only the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his website.
“I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath.”
–Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 63*
*This is a book you really should acquire and read. Buechner is simply brilliant when it comes to helping us understand the role of preacher.
In the church we are fond of a lot of things that, let’s be honest, have little or nothing to do with Jesus. I’m looking for something in the church I haven’t yet found. After spending the better part of fifteen years preaching in the church and being spiritually beaten to death by God’s people, I can honestly say that something about the church leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a wonder that anyone wants to join up with this club, pay dues, and attend regular meetings.
But church, despite my criticisms, is not meant to be, nor will it ever temporally be, a place of perfection. And the reason people get so bent out of shape is because they expect the church to operate like the local retail outlet: the customer is always right and we must do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy and returning and parting with their money. When the church doesn’t operate that way it’s time for something to change. Churchtopia is what some look for instead of simply a place where everyone who has been beaten, broken, hurt, and undone can meet with like living and treated people.
The church isn’t perfect; duh. What we haven’t figured out yet is this: it’s OK that the church isn’t perfect.
Does what we say resemble what Jesus said? With four Gospels to work with, the words and teachings of Jesus are not hard to find. If Christians really do believe what Jesus said, do we sound anything like him? Do books written by Christians sound anything like Jesus’ appearances in the Gospels? Did he even once mention our need to receive him as our personal Savior? Did he constantly talk about ‘discovering your destiny through your dreams?’ Was church growth a major Jesus topic? If not, why not? And where did we come up with all the things we love to devote conferences to? (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 54-55)
Of all the things his enemies chose to trap Jesus, politics was the best. Even I could have figured out that one. We can trap anyone in a conversation about politics. I’ve know people who would sell out their own mother because of politics, or, worse, their own child. It was a perfect trap for Jesus–because everyone knows that the Pharisees and Herodians were perfectly innocent when it came to politics!
I’ve often marveled at Jesus’s ability to come up with these so-called one liners that effectively silenced his critics with one fell swoop. “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” When you come up against someone who knows all too well the tactics of the enemy, and he destroys you with thirteen words (probably less in Greek), what else can you do but leave? I wish I had that power, that wit, that ability to think so quickly.
Usually I think of the good stuff after the person leaves in anger. I wish just once I could say something so witty and thoughtful that a person left me because they were amazed.
The image we have, sometimes, in church and amongst Christians in general, is that being curt is unacceptable, undoing your enemies with words is beyond the pale. What we expect is courtesy and manners. I detect in Jesus’s words to the Herodians a great big, giant, massive, “Shut up already” or “Take this back to the Pharisees and let them smoke this for a while.” Jesus rules!
I know you’re thinking something like, ‘Well, he was Jesus and he could do what he wanted. With us, us saved people, we have to be nice to one another.’ Sure. Whatever.
Personally I think we put too much stock in being nice and having manners. When someone is acting stupid, asking stupid questions designed to do nothing but trap another, the other should be quick to be as witty and thoughtful as Jesus–to silence them and, perhaps, save them from further embarrassment. The problem is that we do not have time to be witty and thoughtful. All we have time for is the jugular. That is, Jesus wasn’t witty and thoughtful for the sake of destroying his enemies, but for the sake of truth.
If we cared about truth, and I suppose many Christians think they do, we would put more time into being witty and thoughtful and saying more with less. A beautiful thirteen word sermon was all it took to shut up stupid people. I like that about Jesus. (*smile*)
Like many people right now, I am reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity, which was recently published by Waterbrook Press. I’m only two chapters in, but already I know the reason I bought the book and why I visited the late Spencer’s blog Internet Monk so frequently.
He tells his readers in the introduction exactly to whom he is writing and why:
Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.
And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.” (5)
I am one of those people to whom Spencer is writing. It’s a sad thing, really, that I am an ordained minister, have a Bible college education, earned my living from the church for the better part of fifteen years, and have been a Christian since I was at least thirteen, maybe sooner, and have very little interest, right now, in the church—and precisely because of the people who make up the church. I know it is a strange thing since I too am part of that problem, part of the church.
I’m not that far gone though. I still worship with the church on Sundays and when I am asked I am still willing to step to the pulpit and speak the word of God to God’s people. Truth be told, I love the church which is the main reason why it is so terribly painful to be living in this borderlands place that I am living right now. I know Jesus loves the church—ugly as the church is—and that he will never quit on the church no matter how far away the church wanders from or quits him. I know that I have no right to despise the body of Christ.
Yet I suppose that is the very temptation I have had to struggle with so much over the last eleven months of this pilgrimage: how can I not despise the very place where I have been so despised while serving as a pastor/preacher? Oh, it’s that grace thing I suppose and I’d rather not think of that; it’s much easier to keep provoking and nursing those needling thoughts about all I would like to say. The first time I was treated poorly by a church I went right back to the pulpit and took out a lot of frustrations on unsuspecting congregants. This time, the Lord is not so quick to allow me that opportunity again. So I have been wandering for nearly a year.
William Willimon wrote a smart little book he titled Sinning Like a Christian wherein he explores the so-called seven deadly sins. I was minding my own business tonight when my wife grabbed the book, opened to a random page, and began reading:
Maybe that’s why the Scripture tells us, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Vengeance, once of the most popular motivations for indignation, righteous or otherwise, is not a gift God gives to us. Vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours. Because our anger can be so self-deceptive and delusional, so very dangerous to ourselves and others, the church has called Anger a sin, and a deadly one at that. We are to guard against it, fight it with all our might, repress it and stuff it in because, not being wise or as loving as God, we are not to be trusted with Anger.” (76)
Well, I wasn’t too happy with my wife after she read that ‘random’ passage of Willimon to me. I would have been much happier if she had read me a love-letter or a birthday card or the menu from our favorite local Chinese restaurant. Truth is, it hit me hard.
In about five minutes, on June 23, I will turn forty. I don’t care any more. I had my mid-life crisis when I turned thirty ten years ago and celebrated with folks from the church who, nine years after that fact, terminated my employment and sent me into a tailspin of anger, church homelessness, and depression. Forty? Pshaw! I can do forty standing on my head in the snow.
But forty is a special day because it also marks the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of another change I need to make. I haven’t been on good terms with my Lord for the last year; he is so patient. He gave me a year or so to sort it out or, rather, to wrestle with all the emotions that come from such a drastic change as I have had to make. July 12 is the real anniversary, but June 23 marks my fortieth birthday and it is also the day I have decided to open up my Bible again and begin to read it and pray it.
I needed a break from it. I needed to know that I still hungered for it. I needed to know that it was still the Word of the Living God. I needed to know that despite everything that had changed about me, the Word was still capable of changing me even more. Frankly, I had to know that I still believed what was written in the book. So I am breaking my fast (it hasn’t been as complete as I make it sound) from the Bible and beginning all over again again because I believe that the Bible was also written to misfits like myself—people who are on the brink of walking away—people like those to whom Michael Spencer wrote. And Spencer did not write to justify their walking away, or thinking of walking away, but rather to show there is a reason to continue loving the church.
The Bible too.
I will be reading the Bible afresh, with fresh eyes, with new perspective, and with a new confidence—not confidence that it has ‘all the answers’ to my questions or that God will all of a sudden reward my diligence with new sermons or jobs or ideas or anything of that sort. No, nothing like that at all. Rather I will be reading the Bible just to see what it says about God and his way of dealing with rebels like me.
I have known my anger. I have known my bitterness. I have known my disgust. I have known hatred and a desire for revenge. I have known rebellion, distance, and blasphemy. I have known cursing. I’m tired of all that. I’m tired of the exhaustion that comes from living apart from a real living faith and conversation with the Living God.
I want to know Jesus. Better, He still wants to know me. And maybe together, Jesus and me, I will learn how to love the church again like I used to; like he never stopped doing, the way He always does.
Today’s readings: Numbers 16:20-35. Romans 4:1-12. Matthew 19_23-30. Psalm 94.
This morning, my second of three days away from work, I sat in a chair on the patio behind my house. There were about a million birds singing—all a different song, but all perfectly intelligible to someone or at least to another bird. The songs were wonderful even though they were not being sung to or for me. Maybe the birds would be offended if they thought I was listening in on their conversations and songs.
I just couldn’t help myself and I found myself wishing I knew their language so that I could sing with them.
While I sat on the patio, I read from Scripture. Specifically, I read from John 11 and the story of the raising of Lazarus. Theologians are quick to point out that what happened to Lazarus was a resuscitation and not a resurrection. This is a terribly important theological distinction.
I don’t think Lazarus cared what it was: all he knew is that he was alive. Nothing else mattered now that breath filled his lungs again and light flooded his eyes and the warmth of blood once again began flowing through his flesh. Jesus did more than raise Lazarus: he recreated blood, fired synapse’s, pushed breathe into his lungs, and gave Lazarus back his movement. Whatever he did, it brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Whatever it was, Lazarus was glad for it.
I suppose I have always thought, probably because I watched some Jesus movie one time, that Lazarus came out of the tomb slowly, stiffly, and without much animation. Maybe. He was, after all, wrapped in ‘grave clothes’ which probably prevented a great deal of motion. But maybe Lazarus came bounding out of the tomb sort of like that fella that Peter healed one day who went ‘walking and leaping and praising God’ in the temple courts. Maybe Lazarus came out with a leap and a shout something like, “He get this stuff off of me I can’t see, or talk, or run and leap and sing.”
Somewhere I read that the reason Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out,” is because if he had just said, “Come out,” the tombs would have emptied that day. He called Lazarus and Lazarus came out. Isn’t it odd that even the dead can hear the voice of Jesus—often are better than the living: the birds obey; the dead obey; the living….well, we practice. Can you imagine Lazarus shouting back, “No thanks! I’m fine where I’m at.” But who among us would refuse the call to life? Even the dead are smart enough to know that when someone calls you to life you hear, listen, and obey.
I wonder if any of those others, the other dead, laying bone dry in dusty tombs near Lazarus’ tomb lay there thinking, “Oh, please call me next! Please call my name! Please Jesus let me hear your voice!” There’s something strange about people not wanting Jesus to call out their name, something odd about those who so continually refuse to hear and heed the call to live and life.
As I read through this story I noticed that people kind of blamed Jesus for Lazarus’ death. Verses 21, 32, and 37 all seem to point in the same general direction: Jesus could have done something but since he wasn’t there he didn’t. I’ll bet they would be angry if they knew he purposely stayed behind for two extra days.
- Lord, if you had been here… (21)
- Lord, if you had been here… (32)
- Could not he who…. (37)
It feels like maybe they were thinking he could have done something but for some reason or other he did not. Let’s be honest and truthful: this is one of the most difficult aspects of faith and Jesus to deal with on a regular basis. And I am only too aware of the platitudes that mutter things like, “What God could have prevented in his power he allowed in his wisdom” or something like that. Frankly speaking, this is of little comfort to the grieving and wailing. Yet there it is. Jesus could have done something after all he did open the eyes of a blind man! If he had been there he could have done something.
Divine restraint is profoundly perplexing and discomfiting.
Sometimes Jesus just isn’t there in time to prevent something. Sometimes Jesus delays for an extra two days so he can shop or catch up on his favorite television programs. I don’t know the reason why he delays and I cannot say that I perfectly agree with it—you know, why not set the world right right now? Why is it wisdom to allow death instead of preventing it?
What would have been the greater joy? Receiving a resurrected Lazarus back from the grave or having him healed before he entered the grave? The only response we know of is that Jesus really made a lot of people angry with this stunt and some others put their faith in him. The raising of Lazarus caused a lot of problems and, to be sure, didn’t go all that well for Lazarus either (John 12:10).
Here’s the thing though. Jesus calculated all this and made the decision and we are privy to the wisdom of his decision with respect to Lazarus even though we are not always privy to the wisdom he employs in his decisions concerning our lives: Jesus was not content to merely ward off death for a little while. No. His goal was to crush death under the weight of its own hubris. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but it was better to utterly demolish death instead. There is wisdom.
Here I am. I am thinking of that sort of wisdom—wisdom that is powerful enough to prevent anything, but doesn’t always do so. I don’t understand it, but I don’t suppose I have to. Anne Lamott writes beautifully that ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns’ (plan b, 256-257).
Here I am, living in the mystery, living with the mysterious Jesus who evinces a sort of wisdom that allows pain and suffering and death because there’s something better he wants to do. The essence of faith is believing that Jesus’ wisdom, no matter how little sense it makes, is wise. The essence of faith is believing that things make sense to God even when they do not make sense to me. I’m not close to mastering this which is why I write about things like anger, envy, and pride.
So what are we to do with this Jesus? NT Wright has some helpful thoughts at this juncture:
What’s more, the suggestion that we treat Jesus as a moral example can be, and in some people’s thinking has been, a way of holding at arm’s length the message of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the meaning of his death and resurrection on the other. Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. (After You Believe, 126)
I have to ‘do something’ with this Jesus who gave us a glimpse of what this transformed earth and life will be like in the raising of Lazarus. This Jesus who does things like raise people from the dead is not safe and cannot be domesticated. He is unruly and out of control: no one stands up to the biggest bully in town. People are typically content to let the bully have his way, and death was content to continue owning every street corner in town. Jesus came along and changed all that.
Jesus is not safe. What are we to do with him? What are we to do with one who purposely lets death have its way only so he can walk right up to its front door and not even knock before demanding that death give up its claim? If anything we can say that Jesus is not one who will deal nicely with death at all so who are we to think we have a chance of resisting him? The biggest bully in town does not stand a chance against Jesus and all Jesus did was say, “Lazarus, come out!”
What I am going to do with this Jesus? I can’t stop him or control him. I can’t resist him. I can’t not follow him.
It’s late now. The birds have put away their songs for the day. They are resting some place safe, waiting and watching for the veil to lift and the the dawn to break. They will awaken me with their songs blaring through my open window in the morning. I still will not know their song or the language they use so I won’t be able to sing with them. But I know a song of my own, it’s the same song Lazarus sang when he came waltzing or leaping or jumping or hobbling out of the tomb that fine September morning. I can sing it with Lazarus because I, too, have been raised to life.
Jesus let the biggest bully in town do its worst for four days. Then Jesus went to the bully’s turf and completely undid the best and worst the bully had to offer. Completely undid death. Completely.
So what do we do with someone who raises the dead, gives life back to corpses, beats up the biggest bully in town? What do we do with Jesus?
Reflections on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009
“Faith has to do with marrying Invisible and Visible. When we engage in an act of faith we give up control, we give up sensory (sight, hearing, etc.) confirmation of reality; we give up insisting on head knowledge as our primary means of orientation in life. The positive way to say this is that when we engage in an act of faith we choose to deal with a living God whom we trust to know what he is doing, we choose a way of life in which bodily senses and physical matter are understood as inseparable and organic to vast interiorities (soul) and immense beyonds (heaven), and we choose to no longer operate strictly on the basis of hard-earned knowledge, glorious as it is, but over a lifetime to embrace the mystery that ‘must dazzle gradually/Or every man go blind.’ (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 44; the quote at the end is from Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems.)
I preached from Ezekiel 37 this morning but only the first 14 verses. The Lord takes Ezekiel for a walk through a valley, a plain—maybe the plain of Meggido—and shows him the remains of what had probably been a battle. The dead, likely of the losing army, had been left on the battle field. Their bodies over time had decayed and been picked clean by the animals and birds. All that was left was bones. A valley of dry, very dry bones. And as Ezekiel retells the events of that day, he recalled that the Lord had showed him all around the valley that day after setting him down in the very middle of that pile of bones. Listen to Ezekiel recall the day’s events.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Ezekiel was shown a valley of desolation, a plain of hopelessness, the valley of the shadow of death. There was nothing there but death, dead, dry bones and that is all that Ezekiel saw. Ezekiel was far too literal; he hadn’t yet developed the eyes of faith, eyes that see what eyes cannot see. The Lord showed Ezekiel everything there was to see: A vast, endless, sea of dead, dry, very dry bones. From a purely human point of view, the question the Lord asked Ezekiel was unfair and I believe that Ezekiel’s answer betrays that: “Lord, you alone know.”
This was, I believe, Ezekiel’s way of giving a perfectly orthodox theological answer without being committed to faith: “You alone know Lord.” Yes. The Lord knows. I think it was Ezekiel’s way of saying something like, “Lord, you can do anything, but I seriously doubt that this valley of dry, very dry bones can or will live. You alone know, Lord; yes, I agree. But this is a valley of dry bones. That’s all I see. There’s no hope for this valley of dry bones. And yet, Lord, I will obey; I will speak.”
The thing is, that’s not what the Lord saw. Later we learn what the Lord saw. Listen to what the Lord told the prophet.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “
That’s the difference between God’s view of things and our view of things. God sees the things that we do not, or cannot. God sees life where there is death; hope where there is hopelessness; the House of Israel where there is only a valley of dry bones. God sees things that we cannot. You might say that God has a sort of faith that we do not. I might say I want that sort of faith.
Maybe Ezekiel wasn’t quite ready to give up control; maybe I’m not. He knew what he saw: A valley of dry, very dry bones. Maybe he wasn’t ready to give up sensory control or his insistence upon a purely intellectual, visual, orientation to life. It’s not easy to live in that sort of, from a human point of view, randomness. We like control. We like knowing, seeing, hearing. We do not like things being out of the ordinary; we like routine. Faith is a way of living that says, if I may, ‘to hell with routine; to hell with what I know, see, hear; to hell with control.’ I know that sounds almost like anarchy, but I assure you it is actually the sort of life (the only sort of life) that can say, “Yes Lord I will take my son, my only son, whom I love, and sacrifice him on a distant mountain even though I don’t see the sense of it;” or “Yes Lord I will prophesy to a valley of dead, dry bones even though I don’t think anything will happen when I do;” or “Yes, Lord, continue believing in you even though there are people who want to kill me for doing so;” or, “Yes, Lord, I will dance and become even more undignified even though people will mock me, people from within my own family; or, “Yes, Lord, I will go to the world with your hope even though they will reject me and crucify me.”
That kind of faith is the kind of faith that defines the people of Christ. And it is also the kind of faith that we are asked to exercise in every situation. The hardest times to exercise such faith are the times when we happen to think that such faith isn’t actually necessary. “Oh, it’s a small decision. I can make it on my own. God doesn’t care what sort of toaster I buy. All I need here is common sense and Sunday’s ads.” But that is not faith. Faith is that extraordinary trust, small and often indiscernible, even when things seem simple and uncomplicated. It might be easy to display a herculean sort of faith during times of great stress and pressure and attack, but I think it is most important to practice such faith when things are at their easiest and least complicated. It shows that we don’t trust ourselves at all; that we need guidance in all ways.
If we don’t practice such faith then, do you think we will practice such faith when life is up in arms and the enemy is crowding us, desiring more space in our lives, when things are really, really hard? If I won’t have the faith required to preach faithfully to a captive audience (let’s face it, a valley of dry bones is a rather captive audience; they’re not going anywhere; they can’t do anything but ‘listen’), then how will I faithfully preach to a living body of Christ? (Maybe it says something about Ezekiel that the Lord entrusted him to preach to a valley of dry bones first before he asked him to preach to the ‘whole house of Israel’.) It’s a small thing to preach to dry bones; it’s quite another thing to preach to the Living Body of Christ. I notice Ezekiel did preach to the bones; we are not told that he preached this particular message to the ‘whole house of Israel’ (See vss 7, 10, 12-14.)
I know I am mixing up all these words: Faith, faithfulness, God’s ‘faith’, my faith. What I’m getting at though is that perhaps faith is the letting go of what we know and see and hear and the living of life that comes from knowing, seeing and hearing and instead living a life that is oriented around what God sees, hears, and knows. I mean think about it, what’s better? Preaching to what we see, that is, a valley of dry bones or preaching to what God sees, the whole house of Israel? But until we have the sort of eyes that see what God sees, the whole house of Israel, our efforts, our preaching, our faith—indeed, our very lives–will be full of frustration and futility.
We live by faith, not sight. But it’s that kind of faith; God’s kind of faith. So Ezekiel prophesied.
And there was a noise, a rattling sound.
This is a sermon I preached from John 17:6-19 on May 24, 2009. My congregation has been going through some tough times lately and this sermon was a great way to put those issues in perspective. The battle we wage is not against the flesh; Jesus prayed for and prepared us for the battle that is being waged against us.
You can access the sermon manuscript from box.net in MS Word format. Below is an excerpt.
John 17:6-19: Jesus, the World, and Us
An important evening was about to conclude. The disciples had been introduced to the real Jesus. This was Jesus in the raw…the hardcore Jesus who takes off his clothes and washes feet. This was uncontrollable Jesus who quietly announces that his betrayer is among his throng. This is Jesus who says that his people will be defined by nothing less than their love for one another. This is Jesus who sat and listened and patiently, confidently answered all the questions the disciples put forth that evening.
This was the Jesus who decided that the conversation was over because the ‘hour had come’ and that it was time to close the evening’s conversation. So how else would Jesus conclude a conversation, but in prayer. So Eugene Peterson writes:
“The disciples are in the room, but they are no longer asking questions and making comments. They are listening to Jesus speaking with the Father. As Jesus’ followers, we are most definitely included as listening participants.” (Tell it Slant, 217)
Remember, this prayer became Scripture for us. We are not just reading a prayer or even listening to a prayer, but we are listening to the Very Word of God, prayed on and remembered from the night of his betrayal, the eve of his crucifixion. The very night before his death Jesus prayed. It is necessary, then, for us to hear and listen to this prayer—this prayer turned Scripture.
When we take the time to listen to the words of Jesus then we start to hear the voice of Jesus—praying for us, praying with us, praying to the Father. The book of Hebrews says he always lives to make intercession for us. We hear the voice of Jesus in the upper room, on the night he was betrayed, some two-thousand years ago praying a mighty prayer for his people. I want you to hear that prayer this morning.
Be blessed in the Lord.
Welcome to the Life Under the Blue Sky Skycast (Podcast). In this installment, I will explore Psalm 22. You can access the sermon manuscript and lectionary notes here. Here’s an excerpt from the sermon:
The Psalm doesn’t end with all the wavering and tossing to and fro. It doesn’t end with the ups and downs. It ends with worship! It ends in Praise! It ends in the assembly declaring the greatness of God. Why? Well, I think the reason it ends the way it does is because David was vindicated. David survived God’s silence.
Abraham survived God’s silence. Job survived God’s silence. Elijah survived God’s silence. Joseph survived God’s silence.
Jesus survived God’s silence. Resurrection was the vindication. Resurrection is the vindication.
God is being silent for some of you, but your psalm does not end the way it begins. Mourning lasts for an evening, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Jesus’ vindication, his victory, is the promise of your vindication and your victory. God is probably very silent for some of you right now. But he has promised never to leave you or forsake you. He has promised to raise you up. Be encouraged today in the hope that you have been given in Christ.
You can access the audio here: Psalm 22, On the Journey With and Without God
Or use the convenient inline player below.
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Soli Deo Gloria!
“We are created by love, to live in love, for the sake of love…By worshiping efficiency, the human race has achieved the highest left of efficiency in history, but how much have we grown in love?” (Gerald May, quoted in John Eldredge, Waking the Dead, 48)
I’m thinking about this love—and especially as this love relates to the church; to Christians. Commenting on 1 John 5:1, author Morris Womack writes:
“If love is one of the familial traits in God’s family, then each of his children will love God and love the brothers and the sisters in God’s family. You cannot love God without loving your brother. You cannot have one without the other. John reminds us that the way for us to become children of God is (1) by loving God; and (2) by carrying out his commands…[T]he conclusion we expect is: therefore if you love God you will love your fellow Christian.” (College Press NIV Commentary, Morris Womack, 1, 2, &; 3 John, 116-117)
And yet…and yet…Eldredge asks, “Why is it so easy to get angry at, or to resent, or simply to grow indifferent toward the very people we once loved?” (Waking the Dead, 113). John made it perfectly clear in his letter, “…everyone who loves the father loves his child as well…This is how we know that we love the children of God of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands” (1 John 5:1b-2).
Why is love so difficult for us? I mean, as I read blogs and the comment sections of blogs I am led to believe that the family of God is one great big, gigantic dysfunctional family. Why? Because we can’t and don’t and won’t love our brothers in Christ—no matter that we are commanded to. But it is one thing to lament the lack of love and quite another to offer solutions. It is one thing to see others as the stumbling block (“I can’t love them”) and quite another to see ourselves as the stumbling block (“I won’t love them.”) I wonder which is worse.
Ah, therein is my problem. I have no solutions. I don’t know how to convince people that they not only should love their brothers and sisters but that they can. That seems to be what grace does in our lives. That is, enables us to do something, love, that previously we could not do and would not do. I don’t know how to convince myself that I should love. Hey, sometimes it is hard to get over hurt. It is one thing to want love to win and quite another to go out of my way to make certain that is a reality.
Someone else wrote: “Brotherly love is proof of love of God; but the reverse is also true.” (Smalley, 268) Ouch. That hurts. Brotherly love, love God, love people. It makes my head hurt thinking about the various peoples that God calls me to love and the various peoples that God, by virtue of his command, calls to love even me. I can’t imagine the horror some people experience when they read in the Scripture that they are, by virtue of their new birth in Christ, obligated to love so-and-so; or me. I am probably more amazed at the people who have willingly, sacrificially, unconditionally, without an agenda loved me; warts and all that is. Yet I complain when I am commanded to love so-and-so.
Eugene Peterson wrote in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:
“A primary task of the community of Jesus is to maintain this lifelong cultivation of love in all the messiness of its families, neighborhoods, congregations, and missions. Love is intricate, demanding, glorious, deeply human, and God-honoring, but—and here’s the thing—never a finished product, never an accomplishment, always flawed in some degree or other. So why define our identity in terms that can never be satisfied? There are so many easier ways to give meaning and significance to our human condition: giving assent to a creed or keeping a prescribed moral code are the most common in congregations.” (313)
Don’t you think that is too much pressure? Quite frankly it would be much easier if we did have a set of rules that would measure our success; indeed, many think we do. But the Scripture is rather clear that the measure of our success is determined by our love for one another and in no other way. There’s an easy way and the right way. The easy way is rules; the right way is love. And Peterson is right: love is never a finished project or product. There is always some obstacle we have to overcome along the way. Love always wins when we are brave enough to love.
I don’t think I’m searching for anything out of the ordinary, although, to be sure, love is out of the ordinary. It is not what we are accustomed to in this life. So when we get involved with the Jesus life we are shocked that this is what we are called to do. Love one another. Love one another. A new command I give you, Love one another. Jesus said it three times on the night he was betrayed. Three times! I suppose that shocked his disciples that night. Love one another. Pshaw! What sort of kingdom is going to grow, overcome the world, and remain when the cornerstone of that kingdom is love for another?
I’m not looking for anything out of the ordinary, although love does not come naturally to us. To love the people of God causes us all sorts of revulsion and convulsions and indigestion. Yet that command is not rescinded: Love one another is what Jesus left us with. He could have said any of a billion different things is the ‘new command’ he was giving us. And yet…and yet…our story, his story, is defined by love. No matter how complicated it becomes the command never changes: Love one another. Jesus either had a sense of humor or he was serious. Could be both. But while not excluding the former, I am inclined toward the latter.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
Yeah, right. That’s going to work.
Welcome to the Life Under the Blue Sky Skycast (podcast). Below find the audio from last Sunday’s sermon (May 3) from the Acts 4:5-12 Lesson. The manuscript and study notes can be found elsewhere at this blog. The sermon takes about 35 minutes.
Be blessed. You can download the sermon at No Other Name or use the convenient inline player below.
As always, subscription options are available by clicking the link below.
Soli Deo Gloria!
New Testament Lesson: Acts 4:5-12
No Other Name**
The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 He is
“‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the capstone.’”
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
“Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). […] Peter’s statement does represent what the church has always and everywhere believed about the name of Jesus. If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among man, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, unsubstitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless-seeking—vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection—cannot be merged with other means or definitions of salvation.(William Willimon, Who Will be Saved?)
Everyone gathered—rulers, elders, teachers of the law; Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, others of the high priest’s family. They surrounded the disciples just as they had surrounded Jesus on the night he was betrayed. Perhaps there is strength in numbers; perhaps they could bully the disciples into submission; perhaps…just perhaps if they nip this in the bud now they could halt this ‘Jesus movement’ before it gains too much more steam.
There is strength in numbers. There is power in people. It is probably not insignificant that Luke uses the word ‘rulers’, which I don’t think is a technical term, but I do believe is at least metaphorical. Jacques Ellul counts six evil powers in the Bible: Mammon, the prince of this world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death. These may be too vague and overlapping, but they get at the point well enough—and there must be some intimately involved in their perpetuation. He further spells it out for his readers: money, power, deception, accusation, division and destruction. And someone must perpetuate such things—I call the perpetuators, Rulers. What does Ellul say about these things:
They select as their primary target those whom God elects and sets apart (saints), those to whom God reveals his love in Jesus Christ (Christians), and the fellowship of such people (the church). The efforts of evil powers (I call them such for convenience, although I repeat that they are not powers in themselves nor evil as the antithesis of the good God) focus on the place where God’s grace and love are best expressed. They deploy their full strength on Jesus Christ. They concentrate all the forces of evil on Christians. […] [The Devil] brings all his efforts to bear against those who carry grace and love in the world. For his problem is not to bring people to eternal loss or to carry them off to hell, but to prevent God’s love from being present in the world. (Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, 176ff)
And they do well enough. Constantly destroying. Constantly baiting. Constantly threatening the church into complacency. Ellul continues:
What the vanquished powers can always do is dramatize the situation on earth, make human life intolerable, destroy faith and mutual trust, make people suffer, kill off love, and prevent the birth of hope. In other words, what seems to me to be biblically certain is that the evil powers make earth a hell, and that there is no hell but this earth of ours that is said to be a delightful garden. What they do is precisely this: they destroy all that Jesus came to bring. In so doing, they disrupt our relations with God and others, especially the relation created by Jesus Christ. Misery, no perdition, is the issue. Their grand work is to produced in those who have received the mark of the Lord the opposite of what God expects. We should not be surprised, then, at what has happened in the church. It is the normal outcome of this ongoing revolt.”
I believe we see such powers at work in the lesson for today from Acts. This issue, of course, is the exclusivity of Jesus. Ellul is right: The enemy deploys his full strength against Jesus Christ. That is what the ‘rulers’ did that day when they arrested the apostles. Look what Luke tells us:
The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.
I love how Luke continues to point out how all the rulers just piled on and on and on the apostles for ‘teaching’ and for ‘acts of kindness.’ Sadducees, Priests, guards, and others—all of them ganging up on the apostles for teaching. Peter turns it on them, ‘If we are being called to account for an act of kindness…’ And I think this is Peter’s way of saying something like this: What’s the real reason you are calling us to account today? How can you possibly find fault with the healing of a crippled man? Show your cards! What’s the real motivation here? Well, we already know what the real reason was: They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching people, and ‘proclaiming in Jesus’ the resurrection from the dead.
That was the problem. The world’s problem is not with you and me per se but with Jesus and this is why when Peter mounts his ‘defense’ to their charges, he doesn’t defend himself. Did you get that? Their problem was with Jesus—the very one they had killed, but whom God had vindicated. So, Mark Driscoll notes:
“Jesus’ exclusivity as the only possible means of salvation. Oprah Winfrey expressed the thoughts of many in our age of spiritual pluralism, saying, ‘One of the biggest mistakes humans make is to believe there is only one way. Actually, there are many diverse paths leading to what you call God.’ While the view seems kind and generously open to all faiths, the belief is as foolish as saying that every road one might travel in this life ultimately leads to the same destination.
“Because the superiority, glory, exclusivity, preeminence, and singularity of Jesus as both God and Savior are at stake, we must contend for Jesus as the only God and the only possible means of salvation, as both Jesus [John 14:6] and the early church [Acts 4:12] did.” (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, 137-138)
So Peter contends for Jesus—not for himself. He knows they have a problem with Jesus because no one in their right mind has a problem with someone healing a crippled man. I sense in Peter not a little sarcasm: Well, OK. If we are being called to account because of kindness, then know this, even the very kindness we are doing is done because of Jesus. We do nothing apart from Jesus. Not teaching. Not preaching. Not kindness. Not anything. The Person of Jesus motivates and amplifies our actions.
But why is Peter so intent on proclaiming Jesus? Why is Peter so intent on not defending himself and on only pointing to Jesus? I think there are a couple of important reasons.
The first is this: Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit. The rulers gave Peter the opportunity for defense and Peter took it upon himself to instead utter proclamation. His defense is the Gospel. He frames his answer inside the confines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, buried and resurrected. But Peter doesn’t say these things of his own accord either.
Sometimes we are confronted and we defend, but Peter here doesn’t defend; he contends. And not for himself, but for Jesus. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and then he spoke. It indicates that Peter was did not speak on his own, but as the prophets of old he spoke as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit. I love what William Willimon says about preaching, “The Risen Christ is always a more fit subject for conversation in the church than us. To be a preacher is to relinquish all homiletical assistance other than that give, or not given, by the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit must empower the preaching. Interestingly enough, after this short sermon, Luke notes, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that they had been with Jesus.” Perhaps being with Jesus and empowered by the Spirit is of far more consequence when preaching than is any other consideration. But the Holy Spirit, we can see, inspires far more than mere courage, he also inspires content. Peter simply got up and declared what they asked: “It was the name of Jesus.” So this is not merely about courage to talk. This is about confidence to say only what is given at the moment.
I don’t think we preachers, and by that I mean every person who has been given the testimony of Christ, rely enough on this Holy Spirit. “What are we attempting with which could not be accomplished without the Holy Spirit? What is there about our lives which demands an explanation? We will be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ when we dare to do what could never be accomplished on our own strength and insight” (Lloyd John Ogilvie, Acts Communicator’s Commentary, 1983 as quoted by William J Larkin Junior, Acts IVP NT Commentary Series, 73).
Seriously, if all we do can be explained away as the mere byproducts of human ingenuity—eh, where is the Spirit of God in all that?
But look what the Holy Spirit filled Peter did. Look where the Holy Spirit pointed Peter to: Jesus.
A second consideration is that Peter proclaimed the Word of God: “The stone you builders rejected, which has become the Cornerstone.” Peter didn’t have to look far or point far to show the people he preached to that nothing that was happening should surprise them because it is what God had been saying all along. If they had only paid closer attention to the Word they would have noticed, they would have seen.
We can try all day to outwit the rulers of the world using all sorts of worldly weapons and powers and reasons, but there is only one answer for all the world’s accusations. One writer noted, “Today as well the Spirit’s witness to the truth through Christ’s messengers will be unanswerable, though still unacceptable, for many people” (Larkin). Preach the word, Paul wrote, “be prepared in season and out of season.” Preach the Word. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Isaiah said it is the Word of God that will not return to God void. And Jesus said the sower went out to sow and the seed he sowed was the Word of God.
Another noted a similar point, “Luke is thus describing effective ministry in the New Testament era: speaking out of the fullness of the Spirit and out of a knowledge of Scripture. The apostles have a boldness that comes from confidence about their message and empowerment by the Spirit” (Aijith Fernando, NIV Application Commentary). Too easy is it to follow the way of the world and preach out of the fullness of ourselves or out of the wisdom of the world. We learned during our Lenten sermons that what we preach is foolishness, but it is God’s foolishness we preach and in that foolishness is power.
I think there is a time and a place for what we call testimony. But testimony is not necessarily Gospel. Testimony is our history—what happened in the past. Witness is the telling of what God has done and is doing and will do in Jesus. What Peter quoted that day is—simply, nothing short of what Jesus himself had said in Luke 20:17: “Then what is the meaning of that which is written, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” This is yet another reason why it is imperative that we, as a people, continue to involve ourselves together in the Scripture.
Peter had listened to Jesus, Peter was listening to the Spirit thus it follows that Peter would preach the Word of God and let the Word of God be his defense and witness. Later Luke says that they ‘saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, and were astonished and took note that they had been with Jesus.” We learned last week that after Jesus resurrected and met his disciples on Emmaus and in the locked room, he redirected all their attention to all of the Scripture. So John and Peter do the same. They redirect the people’s attention to the Scripture.
Look where the Word of God pointed: To Jesus. Just as the Holy Spirit directed Peter’s words to Jesus; so too the Holy Scripture directed Peter witness to Jesus.
Look where the Holy Spirit and the Word of God pointed: To Jesus.
And so we must continue to talk about Jesus. He must continue to be the subject of our conversations, the pillar of all our preaching. Why? Peter says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”
How can we possibly preach anything or anyone else? Peter earlier said that ‘all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Now he says that ‘salvation is found only in Jesus.’ But I don’t want to talk about salvation because even Peter did not talk about it. He mentions it merely to talk about Jesus. Jesus is the subject. Peter starts working into some terribly exclusive language here. He says, ‘no-one else,’ and ‘no other name,’ and it is at this point that the rulers just lose it.
Remember, the rulers and the powers and the principalities can get along well enough in this world so long as the church is just another social services office or another psychologist’s couch or another soup kitchen. Seriously: those places are never attacked by the rulers and powers. In fact, it is the rulers and powers who set up such places in the first place. And if that is all the church is—fine, but let the church start talking about Jesus and watch the rulers and powers kick it into a different gear altogether.
Do you think our church has suffered the way it has suffered merely because of personality differences among us? But there is something about that Name! There is something about Jesus that irks the powers and the rulers of this world. So look what the rulers say and don’t say to Peter and John before letting them go: They don’t say: Don’t go around healing people or feeding them or clothing them. That’s all fine and good and the implication is that these are harmless things. The powers of this world couldn’t care less if I stand here on Sunday mornings and tell you all about the things I refuse to tell you. But let us dare to stand and preach that Jesus alone is the exclusive way of salvation that God has given us—and what them boil over with rage and hate.
What they do say is this: “But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone is this name. Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach all in the name of Jesus.” Ah-ha!! There it is. It’s the Name that the World fears. Think about it. When God called Moses out in the desert and told him to go back to Pharaoh and preach he armed him with what? The Name: God said to Moses, “I am Who I am. This is what you are to tell the Israelites. I AM has sent me to you.”
Do you hear this? And this is what the Holy Spirit is attempting to wake up in you and me. The rulers of this world are not stupid. The leaders seemed to think that the church was no threat until the church started to preach in Jesus’ name. We can be safely ignored until we start making exclusive claims about this person Named Jesus. The church is a faithful ally in the world’s attempt at Utopian dreams until the church starts talking about Jesus as superior to the gods the world loves. The church can talk all day long about whatever the church wants until the church wants to talk about Jesus. The church is beside the point until the church starts talking about Jesus.
It’s that pesky Jesus every time. You see the world pronounced it’s verdict on Jesus: They crucified him. They nailed him to the tree.. They buried him. They ‘conspired against God and against his anointed one.’
But God also had a verdict on Jesus. The one enthroned in heaven scoffs. He laughs at the world’s attempt to rule and control and overthrow Him and to throw off their fetters. God’s verdict on Jesus: He resurrected Him!!! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!!
There is no place in this world for two gods, and Jesus is the competition for every other god that has been erected on this planet: money, power, deception, accusation, division and destruction. These gods rule; but these are the very gods over which Christ has triumphed in the cross. “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Peter and John were bold and courageous that day precisely because they preached in the Spirit of God, from the Word of God, and about the Son of God. They were bold because they had been with Jesus. They were courageous because they were empty vessels whom the Holy Spirit could fill. They were full of wisdom because they relied on the Word of God and not their own theological prowess.
So if the world’s rulers ask us, “By what power or what name did you do this?” What response can we give?
There is no other Name given by which men must be saved. What else on earth could possibly be of interest to the church but the Name of Jesus? Have we lost our nerve? Have we grown weary of the Name? Have we lost interest in the Name above all Names? Have we tired of the Name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess? Do we think that people will be more interested in us if we preach something different or something softer or something more compelling or something more interesting?
But I also wonder what power we give up, what significance we lose, what authority we surrender when we, in fact, speak in names that are other than the Name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit empowers us to preach only in the Name of Jesus because that is the only Name given by which men must be saved.
You see a fine example in these verses of a church that refused to cooperate or compromise with the world’s powers and rulers and authorities. They threaten the church and hope that they can silence the church with violence and accusations and threats and bully tactics. Not the church, though! “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you or to him? You be the judges. As for us, we cannot help but speaking of what we have seen and heard.”
Those are the words of a church convinced that the world is no ally. Those are the words of a church convinced that being obedience to God renders obedience to any earthly ruler a moot point. Those are the words of a church that will not allow the Name of Jesus to be rendered impotent in this world through compromise with the defeated powers of the world. Those are the words of a church that is sure and certain of God’s verdict on Jesus. Those are the words of a church empowered by the Holy Spirit, convicted by the Word of God, and saved by the One and Only Jesus. And it seems to me that it is far, far better for the world to fear us because we refuse to preach in any other name than it is for them to fear us for any other reason.
So if the world’s rulers ask us, “By what power or what name did you do this?” What response can we give?
There is only one answer the true church of Christ can give.
He is our King.
He is our Love.
He is our God whose come,
To bring us back to Him.
He is the one.
He is Jesus.
He is Jesus.
**(All of the references in this sermon manuscript can be found by accessing the sermon notes here.)
Here is my second installment of study notes for this week’s lectionary readings. This one focuses on Acts 4:5-12. The study focuses on the Spirit’s role, the Name, and the Exclusivity. Quotes from William Willimon, Richard Philips, John Stott, Robert Tannehill, LJ Olgivie, DA Carson, Eugene Peterson, Aijith Fernando, Mark Driscoll, and more. There are 13 pages worth of notes, quotes, and commentary. There is Here’s an excerpt:
The leaders seemed to think that the church was no threat until the church started preaching in Jesus’ name. The world can safely ignore the church until we start making such exclusive claims about Jesus. The church is beside the point until Jesus is brought into the conversation. That is when the world begins to act in opposition. As long as the church is merely a glorified, so to speak, social services or dr phil, the world has no problem with us. It’s that pesky Name; that pesky Jesus whom the world crucified—But God resurrected! God issued his verdict on Jesus and God’s verdict on Jesus ran and runs contrary to the world’s verdict on Jesus. Thus, the world is in opposition.
Acts 4:5-12, The Name of Jesus, May 3, 2009
UPDATE: Access complete sermon mansucipt: No Other Name
Or download the MS Word manuscript here from box.net; formatted for your convenience.
There is no other Name given by which men must be saved. What else on earth could possibly be of interest to the church but the Name of Jesus? Have we lost our nerve? Have we grown weary of the Name? Have we lost interest in the Name above all Names? Have we tired of the Name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess? Do we think that people will be more interested in us if we preach something different or something softer or something more compelling or something more interesting?