The Empty Church

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A BOOK REPORT ON

THE EMPTY CHURCH:

The Suicide of Liberal Christianity

by Thomas C. Reeves

(Reviewed by Rev. Brett Best, July, 2017.)

THE BIG IDEA

Reeves writes with an uncompromising but reasonable style to explain how Liberalism has plagued the American mainline denominations almost to death.  The death of individual churches is beyond dispute and happens daily; the effects on the national groups are indisputably taking their toll.  While Christianity isn’t threatened, these denominations certainly are.  For the record, he calls these denominations the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” and they are, the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

In his own words, “This study places liberal Protestantism in a historical context, describes its current plight, and makes recommendations for its revitalization.” (p. 1)  As you might guess, it is the first of these three goals that takes up most of the pages of the book, but it’s such a tightly-woven, expertly concise telling of history it makes good and informative reading without bogging the reader down.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

First, a couple words about opinion polls and other statistics: one, I am not a believer in opinion polls.  There’s a certain falsehood that’s built into polling.  Regardless of how much science there is the data collection, it creates a false impression that we’re accurately gauging what people think/feel/prioritize.  Statistics of this sort are a more malleable medium than pollsters care to admit.  Have you ever heard a couple diehard sports fans debating whose team is greater?  Statistics fly about the room as proof that convinces no one.  Numbers are not always objective and they can be selectively used to make a point without ever proving a point.  To me, the most genuine numerical evidence is where people are spending their money and their time.  Maybe how they vote, although that can be too small a sample to be reliable.

Second, Reeve’s statistics are two decades old.  When you rely on statistical data, the other edge of that sword is that it ages.  I do not believe the situation has changed enough to repudiate any of Reeve’s points, but you understand my meaning: when you read the statistical parts of the book, you think, “Yeah, but these numbers are so OLD.”

“As is quite well known, the mainline churches have been shrinking dramatically during the last three decades and appear to be confused and helpless at a time when the nation is crying out for inspiration and guidance.” (p. 9)  “Confused and helpless” is the title of the first chapter and is an apt summary of the condition of the mainline denominations.  Between the youngest adults opting out (it would be another decade or so before we started calling them the “Nones”) and the graying of the oldest members, the mainlines face enough losses of membership.  Factor in the distress caused by liberal denominational leaders and policies, you have an explanation for the hemorrhaging of people, churches, and money.

“The obvious question is, Why do liberals dominate?  As we have seen, liberals have long been prominent in the mainline.  But there is also an important principle of group dynamics involved here: moderate, otherwise busy people are no match of zealous, ideological interest groups eager to attain power.” (p. 15)  He goes on to explain something I’ve wondered about for a long time; why denominational leaders tend to be liberals.  Liberal clergy disconnect from the local church because people in the pews don’t want to hear their nonsense; they tend to be more conservative.  So, when parish ministry isn’t an option, what does a theologically trained person do except go to denominational HQ?  To paraphrase a familiar adage, “Those who can, preach.  Those who can’t, administrate.”

Here’s a sign of the disconnect between liberal clergy and conservative congregations: “Complaints about the political partisanship, character, and competence of clergy are commonplace in many denominations.” (p. 23)

Liberals blame the folks in the pews for the demise of their congregations and denominations.  They cite the anachronistic nature of a faith derived from an ancient book (the Bible) as making them irrelevant to modern audiences.  Reeves will spend the remaining chapters explaining how the liberals’ abandonment of history and tradition in favor of trendiness and cultural accommodation is the real cause.  At liberal and conservative extremes, people are lost when there is an over-emphasis on politics.

Why should anyone bother renewing the mainlines?  If they are dinosaurs, why not let them go extinct?  Reeves offers some good motives.

  • The people in the pews still revere the church’s traditions, history, and doctrines, which can provide the inspiration and guidance our culture needs and occasionally wants.
  • The local church is still important to local people.
  • If denominations fall, what is the alternative? DISorganized religion?  This kind of chaos invites more drop-outs from the faith.
  • The secular culture liberals adore has been clearly proven to be morally poisonous.

With specific statistics and quotes along with sweeping generalizations, Reeves paints an unflattering portrait of the Church in America.  He notes the causes of liberalism (i.e., an uncritical accommodation to culture) and its effects (killing churches).  He explains how the “Seven Sisters” have declined and contrasted how liberals and conservatives explain a decline that is obvious to both.  The situation has not changed much in the 20 years since the publication of The Empty Church, with the possible exception being that liberals are becoming bolder and more inclined to use their media and education system advantages without being limited by nagging details like truth.  Reeve’s analysis is logically more applicable to Boomers than their Millennial grandchildren.  The first chapter is one of the most quotable in a book that fairly blossoms with good quotes.

Popular culture is the bane of true faith in the sense that it has created what Reeves calls “consumer Christianity,” the title of his second chapter.  When Modernism moved the center of the faith to the individual (from its Pre-modern focus on the Church), self-centered manifestations of doctrine and practice began to be codified in how we understand and do church.  The tension between culture and Christianity is a frequent topic in this book.  Liberals accommodate themselves to, and even celebrate secular culture while conservatives resist, even vilify it.

On a parallel track, American Church history is a cautionary tale about how culture (and its fossilized form, government) has related to Christianity.  I don’t think people who argue for a “return” to a “Christian America” or propagate a “secular America, like the Founding Fathers envisioned” really understand history.  Once again, the bias of the extremes fouls the well of truth.  Reeves devotes a lot of pages and statistical evidence to back up a more moderate and realistic view that America has always been a culture of individualism, with individuals who backed or opposed Christianity, as their inclinations lead them.  “Religious individualism, to repeat, is at the core of American Christianity.” (pp. 61-62)

In chapter two, Reeves characterizes American Christianity with these broad strokes.

  • “First, our faith is not tied to our churches.” (p. 61) Think of Billy Joe who insists he can worship God just as well in the woods or in a boat (usually with a six-pack) as readily as in a church.
  • “Second, Christianity in modern America tends to be superficial.” (p. 63) Biblical illiteracy, the statistically insignificant difference between the behaviors of churched and unchurched people, and the gap between claims of faith and acts of faith are examples of this superficiality.

Individualism is something Christian and non-Christian Americans share with each other.  What divides us is the Left’s stranglehold on media and education, which they manipulate to justify their actions and the philosophy that supposedly gives rise to them.

Historically, Reeves blames the Enlightenment for birthing Modernism and Post-modernism, philosophies that establish the individual as the center of all things, relativising morality and nullifying the true authorities of the Church and Scripture.  “The point is, to repeat, that this secular religion tended to focus on the self and its desires.” (p. 74)

Intellectuals are fond of social engineering and, to use Rousseau’s classic phrase, they have little difficulty countenancing schemes that ‘force people to be free.’” (p. 79)  The third chapter is about the three “secular religions” Reeves identifies as the Enlightenment, Marxism, and science.  These three historical movements have been perpetrators of grave persecution of individual Christians as well as Christianity as a whole.  None of their attacks have succeeded in gravely injuring Christianity, but is from their toxic cesspool that Liberalism has spawned.  It has done from within the Church what these secular religions have failed to accomplish by working against us from outside.  What’s especially subtle is how the individualism of these secular religions has been blended into American Christianity, making it the consumer-oriented organization it is today.

Chapter three covers American church history up to 1920, chapter four from 1920 to 1960, and chapter five sees us from the 60s through 1996, when the book was published.  The final chapter sets forth some suggestions on how the mainlines could be reformed.  The Empty Church is well-researched and written, presenting these historical periods with just enough detail to substantiate the author’s generalizations.  Space in this humble review does not permit even a bald listing of the movements and persons of these eras.  Such a summary is not necessary as Reeves has done such a commendable job cataloguing and commenting on them in The Empty Church.

Liberalism in the American Church started the mainlines on their decline in the 1920s, with a brief respite in the fifteen years following World War II.  Remember, one way to scale Liberalism is the degree to which liberals condone the culture of the time, whatever it may be.  “Without a Bible or a church tradition to provide, in their [liberals’] judgment, dependable spiritual or ethical authority, most liberal Protestants went along with the flow of events in the secular world.” (pp. 145-146)  Proving once again it is easier to let the river push you than to row against the river.

Clergy were not immune to the siren call of “relevance” achieved by cultural conformity.  Reeves quotes historian Edwin S. Gaustad who captured the feelings of clergy of the day and into our own time; “In the struggle over image, the clergyman unsure of his role as a prophet or moral leader as citizen or therapist, found little reassurance in observing the swift deterioration of his economic and professional standing.” (p. 106)

One trait common to all extreme positions is the tendency to go overboard if left unchecked by anyone with common sense or an actual alternative point of view.  In his chapter “Stuck in the Sixties” Reeves shares a few anecdotes of the excesses to which liberals have gone when they are unfettered by sensible folk.  The “ReImagining 1993” conference held by liberal feminists is one example of the silliness that has been offered in place of orthodox theology and behavior.

In his chapter on renewing the mainlines, Reeves offers several observations and suggestions for ways in which the mainlines might be moved back from extinction.

  • Urbanization is both a bane and a boon to the mainlines. Urban culture seems to favor secularization and liberalism, but statistics show it also increases the opportunities for church involvement.  Urban ministry needs to cease being the domain of the left and moved more toward the center.
  • Educational centers have long been nesting grounds for liberals. But statistics show that more education tends to increase church participation.  Reeves advocates bypassing existing liberal seminaries and other institutions of higher education to create new, more orthodox educational institutions.
  • Liberals and church growth experts have sought to convince us that “outmoded” worship styles and worse, biblical literacy, are offensive to moderns. Again, statistical data tells the opposite story.  Mainlines need to ditch the 50 year-old notion that “relevance” is achieved by simple-minded, uncritical incorporation of popular culture into worship forms.
  • Because the mainline leadership has yawed so far to the left, politics is a subject that should largely be banned from Sunday mornings. The mainline leaders are so thoroughly wedded to the Democratic Party which has been completely dominated by liberals, a stern corrective course needs to be taken.
  • People are opting out of church because they see it as irrelevant. “Irrelevant” does NOT mean, as liberals suggest, outmoded, archaic, ancient, or traditional.  It means – because of the folly of liberals – that it is no different from the world.  The emotional/spiritual felt needs of many people of all ages can be more conveniently found in the world, and so people have reinvested their time and resources in other institutions.  To win them back, the American Church must hew to the right and reclaim our history and traditions and our orthodoxy.  Accommodation to culture is killing us; confrontation of culture will save us.
  • “Here we are at the root of things: the submission of liberal Protestantism to a secular gospel rests upon a failure to accept the essentials of the Christian faith.” (p. 175) We can have a lively discussion of what constitutes the “essentials,” but we can come to agreement if we limit our discussion to the things that are truly important to our faith; the distinctives that we share.  Historically, we have suffered the splintering into denominations because we have allowed non-essentials to be treated as essentials.
  • Reeves calls for “vigorous spiritual formation” on page 178. By this he means rejecting the Pragmatism and Literalism of Science (and all the offspring of the other Secular Religions mentioned earlier), in favor of a return to the miraculous, supernatural, and divine.  Otherwise, church is just another club.
  • Return to a strict moral code will revitalize the mainlines if such strictures are based on Scripture, the spiritual formation previously mentioned, and a dose of common sense. We don’t need a return to the silly fussiness of Fundamentalist prohibitions; that would be an overcorrection.  One thing most people respect is integrity.  The American Church has lost respect because liberals have argued for a dumbing down of Christian morality until church folk are no more moral than unchurched folk.
  • We need to advocate for “common grace” in our culture, genuine respect for all views, not the shallow “tolerance” the left has as its sole virtue and practices with unblinking hypocrisy. We are not in competition with the Secular Religion of Science, but respond reasonably and graciously to those who disagree.  The American Church will earn respect if she sticks to her guns without sticking it to the “other guy.”
  • “Rejuvenated mainline churches must also become engaged actively in evangelism.” (p. 188) This simple sentence underscores the main thing that is wrong with mainline churches.  Evangelism is one of the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of Christian life and is the most neglected aspect of church life, to our shame.  Part of the reason for this is psychological; if there is no real difference between the church and the world, why invite anyone to step across the threshold?  If sin is not a problem and the cross is a myth, why put up with the stuff that accompanies church life?  It’s easier to stay home and more fun to invest our time elsewhere if none of this makes any real difference.  Emptied of the supernatural, we can find better ways to get our coffee on Sunday morning.
  • A return to Scripture and an emphasis on biblical literacy in and outside of the church walls will facilitate both evangelism and discipleship. Liberals forsake the authority of Scripture to exalt reason.  Fundamentalists exalt the authority of Scripture and forsake reason.  We need to find a middle ground between these false extremes and stand firmly on it.
  • “Renewed mainline churches should also take immediate steps to stem the flight of their young people.” (p. 192) Conservative churches raise up young people who generally remain true to their faith.  The liberal near-monopoly on education makes adolescence a vulnerable time and our culture is doing everything it can to extend adolescence.  We need to prepare and undergird young adults by confronting the culture they face and by which they are influenced most of their waking hours.  The proliferation of cell phones has heightened their exposure to media and the Church has done little or nothing to help them sift the good from the bad.
  • “Renewed mainline churches will also accelerate their social and charitable institutions.” (p. 165) This is another aspect of American society that has been abandoned to the devices of liberals who take advantage of their captive audiences.  Charitable institutions in this country began as extensions of the Church, but we abdicated that kind of service to secular and governmental agencies who use them to expand the liberal agenda.
  • Reeves takes a hard line on mainline clergy as well. He urges a return to more traditional forms of pastoral ministry, leaving the political activism and moral relativism predominant among the mainlines behind.

“Finally, how difficult will it be to renew the mainline?  An abundance of evidence suggests that the task is extremely formidable.  For one thing, as we have seen, many liberal Protestants, especially at the leadership levels of the mainline churches, are pleased with the current situation.” (p. 200)  “It is extremely unlikely that efforts to renew the mainline churches will start from the top down.  Meaningful reform will no doubt have to come, as it has in the past, from the rank and file.” (p. 201)

We need to decide whether or not the mainlines are worth saving.  Considering the alternatives, I’d say so.  Then we need to decide that the renewal of the mainlines will only happen with God’s Spirit at work in the pews and work its way out from there.  It then needs to involve the local clergy and skirt the denominational office as a lost cause, working in regions as a leaven.  Person to person, church to church across localities, eventually the tide will turn even the vast rudder of the denominational leaders and the ship may yet avoid the inevitable iceburg.  We can either act or let the inevitable demise happen.

MY GRADE: A.

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Overcoming the Dark Side – A Review

Dark Side

(Disclaimer: If you’re a Star Wars fan and have come here looking for more fuel for that fire, turn away, my young padawan: it’s not that “dark side.”)

A BOOK REPORT ON

Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership

(Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima)

by Brett Best

June 2017

THE USEFUL MAIN THOUGHT

Whatever it is that makes a leader effective is a two-edged sword; those who are not careful in wielding it may cause self-inflicted wounds on the backswing.

THESIS STATEMENTS

“It was during this research that it became clear that a paradox of sorts existed in the lives of most of the leaders who had experienced significant failures: the personal insecurities, feelings of inferiority, and need for parental approval (among other dysfunctions) that compelled these people to become successful leaders were very often the same issues that precipitated their failure.” (p. 13)

“Because it is a part of us that we are unaware of to some degree, lurking in the shadows of our personality, we have labeled it the dark side of our personality.  However, in spite of the foreboding mental image the term dark side creates, it is not, as we shall see, exclusively a negative force in our lives.  In almost every case the factors that eventually undermine us are shadows of the ones that contribute to our success.” (Italics by the authors, p. 28.)

“The aspects of life that push us in a positive way toward success can also exert a negative pull, destroying our effectiveness.” (p. 33)

“In short any behavior that seems to overpower us, as well as any urge or motivation that seems to uncontrollably drive us, is a possible sign indicating the presence of our dark side.” (p. 71)

“Though expectations are necessary to a degree, they can also be a two-edged sword in our lives.  These healthy expectations can motivate the people toward whom they are directed to behave and achieve beyond their current level.” (p. 185)

QUOTABLES

“We live in a culture obsessed with both having and success.  True success is a state of being not having.” (Italics by the authors, p. 19)

“For, all too often, when the lessons of the dark side are never learned, it drives even successful leaders to make unwise, impulsive, unethical, or immoral choices that may ultimately lead to the forfeiture of the very success it created.” (p. 91)

The authors quoted Abraham Lincoln: “All human beings have their weaknesses, but not all of us realize them, come to grips with them, or offset their negative impact.  As a group whose primary endeavor is interacting with other people, leaders must accomplish the paradoxical task of managing their darker sides.”  (Italics in text, pp. 150-151.)

“The purpose of examining the past is not for the assignment of blame, but for self-understanding.” (p. 174)  I chose this quote because it is the sole balance against repeated exhortations to engage in the dredging of one’s past for the purpose of finding where the corpse-like seeds of self-destruction may lie.  It read to me like a call to psychotherapy.  As we live in a culture predominated by lawyers and therapists (evidence of our national self-destruction), I found myself wishing for more balance.  Blaming dad and mom can serve as a mechanism for not taking ownership of the person we’ve become.

“Our legalism is well-intended; nevertheless it is also quite repressive and destructive for those who must live and lead under its weight.” (p. 184)

“We must come to the point where we recognize that our value is not dependent on our performance, position, titles, achievements, or the power we wield.  Rather, our worth exists independently of anything we have ever done or will do in the future.” (p. 213)  This is the best quote in the book and should have been in the introduction.

MY OPINION: PRAISEWORTHY PARTS

The authors precisely identified their aims and assumptions in the opening sections of the book.  They numbered them and set them aside to make them obvious instead of making use delve into the text to mine them or discover them by accident.  I appreciate assisting the reader by making the important bits obvious.

I read the revised version of the book; the original was published in 1997, the revised version in 2007.  I mention that because that time frame overlaps the rise of popular study of “emotional intelligence” in our culture.  Although the authors reference little or none of the fruits of this research, they ran on a parallel track.  Students of “EQ” will recognize the strands of thought shared with psycho-social observers of the time, purveyors of emotional sophistication in our intellectual processes.  In fact, with repeated references to Maslow and Jung, the greater portion of their teaching is based on social sciences than Scripture.

It is helpful to identify leadership styles and explore the light and dark sides of each.  A “Cosmo”-style self-evaluation is offered as a means of identifying one’s predominant leadership style.  Of course, the names assigned to the styles are negatively-oriented to their dark side: the Compulsive Leader, the Narcissistic Leader, the Paranoid Leader, the Codependent Leader, and the Passive-Aggressive Leader.

A five-step program is offered to aid leaders in overcoming their dark side, whichever form it may take.  If employed, I can see where this basic level of organization may help someone whose score in any of the dark sides was eight or more points.

MY OPINION: SHORTCOMINGS

The authors too frequently resort to generalizations like “many in the Christian community.”  How many?  What statistical data or anecdotes or other evidence can you offer to support such a contention?  To me, this is not scholarly; it is a lazy kind of writing that asserts as truths non-facts that are unproven and probably unprovable.  While I trust McIntosh and Rima as observers, it is simply not helpful to toss these sweeping generalities around as if they were self-evident.

This is a book on leadership among thousands.  It makes a point that may be examined in a more scholarly fashion elsewhere, but it is an important point to be made.  My concern is that the authors have given us an inoculation but not the cure.  The book successfully alerts the reader to the important point about the double-edged nature of leadership qualities, but, in spite of its length, does so superficially.  I would advise the reader who is concerned about their own dark side to turn to more competent sources of information on emotional intelligence.

The self-evaluation is an example of a double-edged nature.  While it is the backbone of the book, there is no more science here than one of the hundreds of quizzes on Facebook.  Science would establish a database on responses to these questions and create a sense of how commonly each aspect of the dark side occurs.  Science would trace connections to discoveries about emotional intelligence and explore linkages between these components of the dark side and established mental illnesses.

Having said all this, it would appear that I’m arguing that the book needed to be longer, to include more information.  Actually, my biggest concern about the book is that it is too long because it is filled with the wrong kinds of information; the author’s summations, generalizations, and exercises of imagination that stand in the place of genuine research.

To me, DARK SIDE is an example of a “padded book.”  There is enough new and useful information here for a journal article.  The rest is padding added to increase it to book length.  The authors make profuse use of historical/biblical examples of leadership meltdowns.”  While anecdotes are useful rhetorically, in this case their profusion indicates a shallowness of substance.  Another example of padding is extensive use of quotations.  It amused me to see multiple quotations from Sue Grafton.  I was under impression she is known as a popular author of fiction.  Is leadership theory part of her publishing resume?  The book is simply a mile wide and an inch deep.

MY OPINION: FINAL GRADE

If I wanted to be cute, I’d give DARK SIDE a “D” for “dark.”  Instead, I’m giving it a “D” for the shallowness of scholarship and the addition of too much padding to stretch a viable journal article into a salable book.

Wage War on Weariness #4

 

What do we do when we are wearied?

To help you be “hip” I am to the latest social trends, I read an article in this morning’s Kansas City Star entitled, “The Ash Wednesday Selfie Trend has Christians Debating: #ashtag or Not?”

LISA GUTIERREZ wrote, “Believe it or not, Ash Wednesday selfies are an official trend now. But religious leaders want people to think twice before posting.  People post selfies of their ash-marked foreheads all over social media.

“But is that appropriate? Should piety be so public?  The debate grows each year as Ash Wednesday selfies become more prolific in kicking off the Lenten season.

“The Catholic News Service recently explained where the lines are drawn in the debate over ash selfies.  Pro: Sharing photos of your ashes shares the meaning of the day with the world and is a modern way to evangelize. Evidence: Some priests and ministers do it.  Con: The solemn reminder of the day — that humans are made of dust and to dust they shall return — is diminished and lost in smiley, happy tweets.

“Ironically, some people couldn’t participate because they gave up social media for Lent.

“Religious leaders advise people to ask themselves why they are ash-tagging. To show off? To share the meaning of the day?”

<Retrieved from http://www.kansascity.com/living/religion/article135664333.html on 3/1/17.>

Perhaps the most important strategy in dealing with weariness is to LAUGH.  An Ash Wednesday selfie may be taking it a bit too far, but finding something to laugh about during our weary days is the most immediately effective “medicine” one can find!

REVIEW

  1. Continue to do good anyway.
  2. Wait on the Lord.
  3. Stand firm; hold tight; hang on to Jesus’ hand.
  4. Focus on the basics: prayer and the word.
  5. Rely on the Lord’s strength, not yours.

NEW

  1. Share your sorrow.

Galatians 6:2 reads, CARRY EACH OTHER’S BURDENS, AND IN THIS WAY YOU WILL FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST.  What does this mean?

The CARRY EACH OTHER’S BURDENS part is an obvious enough concept, but difficult to fulfill.  The Gk word for BURDEN originally envisioned a heavy weight someone was required to carry a long distance.  Eventually, it came to mean any ordeal or hardship a person could experience.

How can you CARRY a BURDEN you know nothing about?  That’s a rhetorical question: the obvious answer is you can’t.  Why are we so reluctant to share our burdens; to get help?  To one degree or another, we all value our independence and privacy.  These values can become detrimental if taken too far.  Pride is another aspect of human nature that gets in the way of getting some partners to help shoulder our wearying burdens.  At one point or another just about every one of us has trusted someone and seen that trust betrayed in some way.  This will naturally make us reluctant to trust again.  The line between being independent and being stubborn is pretty fine and we are probably the least qualified person to judge ourselves.  When you say you don’t “want to be a burden” you are directly violating this command!

None of these things are great reasons – nor are they good excuses for refusing to share our sorrows.  They buy into the myth of self-sufficiency that owes more to ancient Greek philosophy than to biblical teaching (see v. 3).  We must remember our human nature is not our best side; we are to live according to the Christ nature within us.

The point of the phrase IN THIS WAY YOU WILL FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST means two things.  The first is to gently instruct us that sharing our burdens is not optional.  It is a command to those who follow Jesus.  We fulfill the LAW OF CHRIST when we trust one another and share our burdens.  We are all priests: this is what priests do.  The second is to command us to carry each other’s burdens.  This willingness to support one another is not an option, it is mandatory.

I wondered what Paul meant by THE LAW OF CHRIST.  What LAW, exactly?  A couple of ideas: One, in context, the LAW to which he refers here must be the Law of Sowing and Reaping, as found in vs. 7+8.  We sow good seed when we share our burdens and help others carry theirs.  Second, from the Gospels we learn Jesus’ teaching that every act of obedience came down to two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31).

  1. Spend your sorrow on service.

How many times have you observed or heard someone testify that their own spirits were lifted when they offered themselves in service to those who were worse off than they?  I believe that is both human and divine nature.  It is a good deed when we turn our sorrows into service.  It is a good motive for service.

There is an excellent example of this in the Bible.  In Luke 22:7-38 we read about the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples.  In that context, we read about something Jesus said to Peter, a warning He gave Peter: “SIMON, SIMON, SATAN HAS ASKED TO SIFT YOU AS WHEAT.  BUT I HAVE PRAYED FOR YOU, SIMON, THAT YOUR FAITH MAY NOT FAIL.  AND WHEN YOU HAVE TURNED BACK, STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS” (vs. 31-32).

Jesus expressed His support of Peter: “I HAVE PRAYED FOR YOU.”  Even though He knew Peter’s faith would fail him (and He said so in the next two verses), Jesus prayed for Peter to resist the temptation to deny Him.

Jesus instructed Peter as to what he was to do after he repented: “AFTER YOU HAVE TURNED BACK, STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS.”  Just as He knew Peter would fail, Jesus also knew Peter would repent.  That’s why He instructed Peter in advance as to what he must do.

Peter was to spend his sorrow, his regret over denying Jesus, on strengthening his brothers.  This is nothing less than turning a bad experience into good by using it to motivate and relate to other believers who face similar struggles.  To STRENGTHEN means to “confirm” or “establish.”  Jesus is enlisting Peter’s help in re-establishing the faith of His followers after His resurrection.  Peter was leader at that time.

In John 21:15-23 we read about how Jesus appeared after His Resurrection for the purpose of reinstating Peter to his status as His disciple.  That passage describes Peter’s first step in “turning back” as Jesus had commanded at the Last Supper.

  1. Invest in wellness.

“Wellness” is a word that is not found in the Bible but is used in our own time to convey a desirable emotional and physical state of well-being.  Because all truth is God’s truth, we can use the term “wellness” in this sense; the follower of Christ using wisdom in how they treat their body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

The entire Bible book of Proverbs is a storehouse of wisdom.  Chapter four particularly praises the value of wisdom to motivate God’s people to seek it.  Here are a couple of verses that show the relationship of wisdom and wellness: MY SON, PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT I SAY; TURN YOUR EAR TO MY WORDS.  DO NOT LET THEM OUT OF YOUR SIGHT, KEEP THEM WITHIN YOUR HEART; FOR THEY ARE LIFE TO THOSE WHO FIND THEM AND HEALTH TO ONE’S WHOLE BODY. (Proverbs 4:21-22)

The connection between wisdom and wellness: people who are wise will enjoy health.   This is not, primarily, a promise that wisdom produces health, but more commonly, an affirmation that those who are wise are characterized as being healthy because wise people seek health.  They treat their physical self as another resource that needs to be used wisely, according to God’s command.  The verse promises that the two are interrelated.  Wisdom and health are found together.  Add faith and that is the entire package!

We know that the body will not survive into eternity, the soul (or spirit) will.  For now, however, as long as we live in this world, we know that we are not a soul separate from a body.  Body and soul exist together and only God can separate them.

We affirm that wellness is a proper goal for a follower of God, the Giver of the wisdom we just read from Proverbs.  We also affirm that wellness is both a defense against weariness and a cure for it.  Wellness is one of those things in life that you have to spend to make more.  This means that we need to spend more time and energy on improving our physical and emotional selves in order to build up a tolerance against weariness.

This work must continue, even when we are weary, because we know that a healthy body leads to a healthy soul and vice-versa.  We can’t have one without the other.  We are a whole person and we need to act like one to overcome weariness.

I am not advocating any one strategy for wholeness.  I’m not here to sell you vitamins or convince you to become a vegetarian.  I’m trying to convince you of two truths: It is divine wisdom to care for yourself, body & soul.  Wellness is a strategy for preventing & overcoming weariness.  The more you invest in wellness, the more strength you will have to overcome weariness.

Richard Wurmbrand tells of a legend that Moses once sat near a well in meditation. A man stopped to drink from the well, and when he did so his purse fell from his girdle into the sand. The man departed. Shortly afterwards another man passed near the well, saw the purse and picked it up.

Later a third man stopped to assuage his thirst and went to sleep in the shadow of the well. Meanwhile, the first man had discovered that his purse was missing, and, assuming that he must have lost it at the well, returned, awoke the sleeper (who of course knew nothing) and demanded his money back. An argument followed, and irate, the first man slew the latter.

Whereupon Moses said to God, “You see, therefore men do not believe you. There is too much evil and injustice in the world. Why should the first man have lost his purse and then become a murderer? Why should the second have gotten a purse full of gold without having worked for it? The third was completely innocent. Why was he slain?”

God answered, “For once and only once, I will give you an explanation. I cannot do it at every step. The first man was a thief’s son. The purse contained money stolen by his father from the father of the second man, who finding the purse only found what was due him. The third was a murderer whose crime had never been revealed and who received from the first the punishment he deserved. In the future, believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.” (100 Prison Meditations, pages 6–7)

Like Moses in this story, our weariness can compromise our ability to see life from God’s perspective.  I can depress us and draw a shade over the light.  Faith is where we stand, utterly convinced that God is for us.  Nothing in this world, including weariness, matters so much as that.

Why’d He Do It? To End Division.

(Please read HEBREWS 10:19-25.  I have cited the NIV below.)

Jesus’ sacrifice brought to an end division between humanity & God and between one another.

During a wedding rehearsal, the groom approached the pastor with an unusual offer. “Look, I’ll give you $100 if you’ll change the wedding vows. When you get to the part where I’m supposed to promise to ‘love, honor, and obey’ and ‘be faithful to her forever,’ I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave that out.” He passes the minister a $100 bill and walks away satisfied.

On the day of the wedding, when it came time for the groom’s vows, the pastor looked the young man in the eye and said, “Will you promise to bow down before her, obey her every command and wish, serve her breakfast in bed every morning of your life, and swear eternally before God and your lovely wife that you will not ever even look at another woman, as long as you both shall live?”

The groom gulps, looks around, and says in a tiny voice, “Yes.”  Then he leaned toward the pastor and hissed, “I thought we had a deal.”

The pastor puts a $100 bill into the groom’s hand and whispers, “She made me a better offer.”

<Retrieved from http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/relationship-jokes/5 on 3/11/16.>

The roadblocks in relationships are the ones we put up.  The barriers to love are walls we create because of ignorance and sin.

Today we’re going to see that one of the reasons Jesus gave His life on the cross was to tear down those barriers.  At His death, something supernatural happened that gave us access to God and to His love.

  1. THE CURTAIN is a symbol of division. (HBS 10:19-21).

This curtain hung in the tabernacle and later in the temple; it divided the Holy and Most Holy parts of the temple.  The instructions for this CURTAIN are found in Exodus 26.  It was to be made of fine linen and decorated with blue, purple, and scarlet threads which depicted angelic beings called “cherubim.”  I’ll tell you why that’s important a little later on.

The most important CURTAIN in all Judah was the one that covered the Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant within.  Only the high priest stepped around that CURTAIN and then only once a year to cover the sins of the people.

Part of holiness is separation; that is a virtue.  When the Bible uses the word HOLY, it refers to something that is set apart for God’s glory and His exclusive use.  It has no everyday usage.

All this was done at God’s command.  The Ark was referred to as the “seat” of God and was the physical symbol of God’s presence with His people.  In this way, God was seen as present and distant at the same time.  He was to be approached by the priests, who acted as mediators for the people.

But taken too far, even well-intentioned separation becomes division.  The worst division is that between God and His people. There must be some separation because God is holy in the sense of being pure.  We are not yet perfected, so full fellowship is not possible in this life.

But people who make excuses say God is so separate from us He doesn’t see what we do or care; that He doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.  In cases like that, separation from God is self-inflicted and shows a lack of faith.

Divisions between people are also serious.  Divisions arise between people when our desires are in competition.  Divisions arise when we emphasize our differences and ignore our similarities.  Divisions arise when one or more of us refuse to heed the voice of God and love each other. (Sin creates divisions, love repairs them.)

  1. At Jesus’ crucifixion, THE CURTAIN was torn in half

(see Matthew 27:45-46, 50-51 and Mark 15:38).

His crucifixion was a supernatural event with symbolic meaning.  Both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels report that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the CURTAIN at the center of the temple – the most significant piece of cloth in the land – was suddenly torn from top to bottom.

It was not done by any hand of man – no one would dare to do such a thing.  Instead, it was done by the hand of God and designed to send this message – the Old Covenant, the former agreement, is nullified; TOP TO BOTTOM!  This detail is included to convey to us that the old system of separation was made obsolete and a new system, a new means of access to God, was provided.

It provided access to God, removing the barrier.  The CURTAIN that had once signified separation was now torn and a new way opened.  This symbolized an access to God for all people.  Instead of a CURTAIN separating us, the text informs us that Jesus opened up a NEW AND LIVING WAY into the presence of God.

  1. The tearing of THE CURTAIN represents removal of divisions (HBS 10:22-25).

The torn curtain is a potent symbol we might miss because it is given scant attention in the Gospels.  Here in Hebrews its significance is explained to us. Regarding our relationship with God, the passage indicates three different ways the death of Jesus on the cross was God’s plan to end this most essential division.

First, we DRAW NEAR TO GOD with sincere faith.  You can be sure God knows a sincere heart when He sees one.  One of the ways in which we can gauge our sincerity is to note whether or not we feel FULL ASSURANCE that our faith is not in vain; our trust in God will be vindicated.  We can be emotionally secure about this.

Second, we can be forgiven; cleansed from all guilt.  A benefit to faith is being morally cleansed; our GUILTY CONSCIENCE is removed by God’s complete forgiveness.  It is written, OUR BODIES WASHED WITH PURE WATER as a symbol of baptism and also of the totality of God’s forgiveness from our selfish heads to our wayward feet, sin and guilt are wiped away!

Third, our restored relationship with God gives us reason to HOPE and HOPE steadies us in life’s storms.  Elsewhere in Hebrews (6:19), the author describes hope as AN ANCHOR FOR OUR SOULS.  The purpose of an anchor is to steady a boat and hold it in position.  Hope does the same thing.  If we hold UNSWERVINGLY to our faith we are anchored and we will avoid the wandering that adversity can cause.

The passage does not end here, it gives us direction regarding our relationships with each other, how they are restored by the cross.  We must realize all creation has been affected by Jesus’ victory.

Firstly, loving one another sometimes requires some assertive action; taking responsibility for one another may require us to CONSIDER how we might SPUR each other on to LOVE & GOOD DEEDS.  SPUR is an interesting word in the original language. Paroxsysmos means to “stir up, provoke, irritate.”  It is generally used in the New Testament in a negative sense.  (See 1 Corinthians 13:5.)

Even though the experience may be bitter, our motive in using the spurs is not to irritate, but to initiate an experience that leads to spiritual maturity: to LOVE AND GOOD DEEDS.  This is very difficult.  It requires love and maturity to do the right thing at the right time in the right way with the right motive.

We have to confess that we’re more likely to pamper or procrastinate when we need to provoke, or we attempt to SPUR one another from wrong motives to do the wrong thing.  The best kind of love knows the difference.

Secondly, we meet together for encouragement.  This is the opposite kind of experience from the “spurs.”  Christian, if you don’t generally leave somebody smiling, you need to take a sincere inventory of your spiritual life.  The maturing Christian can be characterized as positive, optimistic, and gracious.

We can’t resort to the “spurs” or give encouragement if we don’t meet together and regularly.  Being in church doesn’t make anyone a Christian, but no one can be a Christian without being in church.  What’s more, we can’t know one another well enough to SPUR or ENCOURAGE each other unless we spent enough time together to have got to know one another.  You should quote this verse to the person who claims they can worship God as effectively holding a fishing pole or at the mall.  But be gentle.

Our efforts at this love need to be intensifying, not slackening.  ALL THE MORE AS YOU SEE THE DAY APPROACHING.  The word DAY in that sentence is capitalized because it refers to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

In a sermon entitled “The Message Sewn into the Veil,” Pastor James Groce made an inspired insight into the matter of the torn curtain. He drew a line back to the book of Genesis to find a wonderful coincidence:

“What is the message in Cherubims embroidered in the veil that ripped when Christ died?

“We saw so much in the Word of God about the Tabernacle, how it ties in with the Garden of Eden. And how the whole plan of salvation is getting back into the Garden again.

“Notice that Cherubims were sewn into the veil, the barrier, that stood before the Holiest of Holies. And we find that this veil ripped open when Jesus Christ died. The barrier was removed.

“And of course this lines up with access to the tree of Life as found in Genesis. Genesis 3:24: So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-message-sewn-into-the-veil-james-groce-sermon-on-gods-forgiveness-37960.asp on 3/11/16.>

Do you see? From virtually the beginning of the creation of our race, sin has kept us from full fellowship with God.  Angelic beings stood guard at the garden and before the Most Holy Place.  But when Jesus died on the cross, the guards were dismissed.  The gate was thrown open, and access to God was made possible.

That’s one reason Jesus died on the cross.  He gave up His life so we could be reunited with God the Father.  The effect of sin that distances us from Him has been nullified.

In our relationships with each other and our relationship with God, there is no longer any need for division.  Any barriers we find are the ones we put there.

What’s Love Got to do With It?

(Please read 1 John 3:11-20 in your Bible.  I quote from the NIV.)

God has given us all we need to love one another.

A mild-mannered man was tired of being bossed around by his wife so he went to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said he needed to build his self-esteem, and so gave him a book on assertiveness, which he read on the way home.

He had finished the book by the time he reached his house.  The man stormed into the house and walked up to his wife.  Pointing a finger in her face, he said, “From now on, I want you to know that I am the man of this house, and my word is law! I want you to prepare me a gourmet meal tonight, and when I’m finished eating my meal, I expect a sumptuous dessert afterward. Then, after dinner, you’re going to draw me my bath so I can relax. And when I’m finished with my bath, guess who’s going to dress me and comb my hair?”

“The funeral director,” said his wife.

This is obviously not what God had in mind when he called us to love one another.  Neither of the married people in this joke serve as an example of godly love, do they?

<Retrieved from http://www.cleanjoke.com/humor/Male-Assertiveness.html on 1/22/15.>

  1. Love has been God’s message all along. (11)

THE MESSAGE YOU HAVE HEARD FROM THE BEGINNING has already been used four times.  The writer – who identifies himself as “the Elder” – is writing to churches that have been split over doctrines introduced by false teachers.  Part of pulling them back to together is pulling them back to the truth already revealed.

This is not a matter of “old vs. new” as is so often the case in churches, but a matter of “true vs. false.”  It is one case where the traditional and original were also the right things.  That is not always the case.

Also, LOVE is the thing that will heal the rupture.  That is why he wrote YOU SHOULD LOVE ONE ANOTHER.  Love forgives, unites and restores.  It creates and mends and grows relationships.  To mend the churches, it was necessary to get doctrines right and confront the false teachers, but it was necessary to first LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

  1. Love keeps us from repeating Cain’s sin. (12)

It turns out sibling rivalry is as old as siblings!  The first two children of Adam & Eve were sons Cain and Abel.  Problems flared up when God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s.  Cain was jealous and murdered his brother.

The Elder offers Cain as an example of what happens when we have no love in our hearts.  He explained why the first murder occurred:

– Cain BELONGED TO THE EVIL ONE.

– HIS OWN ACTIONS WERE EVIL AND HIS BROTHER’S WERE RIGHTEOUS.

We can call Cain a “negative example;” someone who’s actions we are NOT to duplicate.  One point made over and over in these letters is that claims to love God and/or one another are proven or disproven by our actions.  While we may never hate someone to the degree that we murder them (by the way, the word MURDER here has unusually strong emotional content, referring to a graphically violent, gory death), to hate is the moral equivalent of that kind of murder.  (See Matthew 5:21-22.)

  1. We must love because we need each other. (13)

The ferocity of anger and hatred in the world can be a SURPRISE to someone who has the love of God in their heart and has not experienced that depth of negative emotion (Cain’s murderous level of hatred).  The other way they might’ve been surprised was to find that behind a façade of love, behind hypocritical teaching, there existed such hatred.

The Elder wrote to help them avoid surprise – being caught unaware – so that they might be prepared and not deceived.  Jesus taught that FALSE PROPHETS can be recognized by their BAD FRUIT (see Matthew 7:15-19).  If the WORLD hates us, then we clearly need to rely on one another to survive with our faith intact.

  1. Love promotes life. (14)

Every use of the word WE in v. 14 is intended as a reference to the Church and stands in contrast to THE WORLD mentioned in v. 13.

– WE KNOW, but according to 3:1, THE WORLD DOES NOT KNOW.

– WE LOVE OUR BROTHERS, but according to 3:13, THE WORLD hates them.

– WE HAVE PASSED ON FROM DEATH TO LIFE, but those who do not love remain in DEATH.

Every believer wants to be assured they are saved.  Verse 14 offers one source of assurance: LOVE for other believers gives evidence to a true, saving faith.

  1. Lacking love leads to death. (15)

On the opposite side, hatred and the lack of love are symptoms of ungodliness that ends in eternal death.  This, in spite of all outward appearances, is the truth: ANYONE WHO HATES HIS BROTHER IS A MURDERER; he is as guilty as Cain.

The outcome of an unloving life is hell, not heaven: NO MURDERER HAS ETERNAL LIFE IN HIM.  This is an oft-repeated theme of the letters of John: A lack of love betrays a heart that is not true to God.  A lack of love makes clear to man what was already clear to God: the faith is false.

Dr. Tom Johnson commented on this verse: “[The false teachers] are not Christians, and, in the author’s view, they never were (2:19).” (Dr. Thomas F. Johnson, New International Biblical Commentary, 1, 2, and 3 John, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p. 83.)

  1. Following Jesus requires loving others. (16)

This verse gives us the ultimate example of love: JESUS CHRIST LAID DOWN HIS LIFE FOR US.  LAID DOWN = stresses that Jesus gave His life willingly, just as He said in John 10:17-18.  This was the most unselfish act in all of human history; the most undeserved death ever known.

It is the example true believers follow: WE OUGHT TO LAY DOWN OUR LIVES FOR OUR BROTHERS.  Obviously, giving up your life is the biggest sacrifice any of us can offer.  But we follow Jesus’ example in the thousands of small decisions we make every week; the instant decisions to sacrifice self-interest and our “rights” for the sake of someone else.  Following Jesus’ example in the ordinary moments of life is not easy; evil influences and bad habits tend to get in the way.  But it is true love.

  1. Love is demonstrated, not just declared. (17-18)

The Elder advances his argument by offering a “What if…” situation: “What if a rich person sees and needy brother and does nothing to help him?  Is that love?”  The Greek word for MATERIAL POSSESSIONS literally means, “the life of the world.”  The man in this hypothetical situation has the means to help.  The Greek word for SEES could also be translated as “stares” or “gazes.”  He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt all need exists. The rich person literally has no excuse for not helping.  It is simply his choice to be pitiless.  What that tiny decision reveals is a loveless character, a life centered on self, not Jesus.

In verse 18 he expands on the example with a principle.  Love is expressed in WORDS and TONGUE, but not in those things only.  That’s just lip service.  True love is expressed in ACTIONS and TRUTH.

– By ACTIONS he means acts of sacrifice voluntarily, graciously, and happily undertaken.

– By TRUTH he means acts that are in conformity with what God has revealed as His will and for the spiritual maturity of the other person(s).

  1. Love is comforting as it proves our faith. (19-20)

In verse 14 we got assurance of salvation and here we have it again; love is how we know our faith is true: WE KNOW THAT WE BELONG TO THE TRUTH AND HOW WE SET OUR HEARTS AT REST IN HIS PRESENCE.  Dr. Tom Johnson wrote, “Assurance is not a matter of convincing ourselves or of thinking positively; it is knowing the truth before God, or with God as our witness!”  (Johnson, p. 88, emphasis his.)

Whether its false guilt sent by the enemy or guilt we ought to feel because we’ve done wrong, we can put that guilt away WHENEVER OUR HEARTS CONDEMN US.  We do this by looking at the general direction of our lives, the way our character is developing.  We tend to get hung up on the little things, so God redirects our focus to the big picture.

We can trust God to know the truth.  He is GREATER THAN OUR HEARTS, so when we despair, He knows better.  When we feel like a failure, He knows our true situation.  This is true and God is trustworthy because HE KNOWS EVERYTHING.  When we trust Him with our lives, we can be assured of our safety. Loving people can be assured of their salvation and agree with the Apostle Paul; THERE IS THEREFORE NO CONDEMNATION FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST JESUS (Romans 8:1).  Only those who are pretending to love need to feel any fear about God’s perfect knowledge of their hearts.

            (Newser) – “In 2013, Smithsonian told a fascinating story: the tale of a family of six who lived deep in the Siberian wilderness for 40 years with zero contact from other humans—and no awareness of WWII—until geologists found them in 1978. Now, the last surviving member of that family has emerged from the wilderness using an emergency satellite phone to ask for help with leg pain. Agafia Lykova, 70, was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol.

“The youngest of four, Lykova was born in 1945 to parents who were Old Believers, a sect that broke from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century. Her father, Karp, fled with his wife and then two children in 1936, and they built an existence two-weeks’ trek from the nearest hamlet, using what little was available—mushrooms, potatoes, a spinning wheel they’d lugged all the way there.

“Geologists stumbled upon the family’s outpost when Lykova was in her 30s, and people began to send provisions she’d never seen, such as bread and milk. While she has chosen not to relocate—‘It’s scary out there; you can’t breathe,’ she’s said of the pollution, which she experienced when touring the nation a few years after her discovery—she doesn’t resent outside contact. ‘I don’t know if we would have survived [without it],’ she said in a 2013 interview. ‘We were running out of tools and food. I no longer had any scarves.’ In hard times she survived on tree bark and reportedly ate her own shoes, and her mother, Akulina, starved to death in 1961 to allow her children to live. Lykova has been alone since her father died in 1988. She’s expected to stay in the hospital for roughly a week, having suffered from cartilage deterioration.”

<Retrieved from http://www.newser.com/story/219092/woman-isolated-for-decades-in-siberia- emerges.html?utm_source=8at8&utm_medium=email&utm_content=2908299&utm_campaign=20160118 on 1/22/15.>

Though we sometimes choose to live Lykova even though we’re surrounded by people, God has certainly not called us to live in that kind of isolation.  Instead, He’s calling us to do the hard work of living in community, being the kind of people who demonstrate the love of Jesus in ordinary ways in all our days.

NEW and IMPROVED!

(Please read 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2.  Quotations below are from the New International Version.)

        Tribal wisdom of the Lakota people, passed from generations immemorial, says that when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. Our modern bureaucrats, however, have a set of more advanced strategies such as:

  • Buy a stronger whip.
  • Find lighter riders.
  • Harness several dead horses together to improve performance.
  • Arrange an overseas visit to study dead horses.
  • Reclassify the horse as “living impaired.”
  • Rewrite the performance requirements for dead horses.
  • Provide additional funding to improve the performance of dead horses.
  • Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position.

        Any similarity between the above and what happens in government is intentional. It is intended to serve as a great example of why there’s no use trying to fix up the Old Creation. Let it stay dead. Trying to keep the old creation is the source of a lot of frustration and disappointment in our Christian life.

THESIS = A new life in Christ includes a new attitude toward God, others, and self.

CONTEXT = 2 Corinthians is the Apostle Paul’s defense of his ministry.  One set of his critics blasted him for not being Jewish enough.  Part of his response to them was to show that the Good News he preached offered a new and improved means of relationship with God.

You are new and improved (16+17).

        Verse 17is key to what we are discussing and central to our identity:  we are new creations! Our new standing with God is possible because of Jesus Christ; that’s why Paul wrote, IN CHRIST. 

        It is a way of describing our new relationship with God.  According to Romans 5, our old relationship with God needed improving.  Verse eight reads;

BUT GOD DEMONSTRATES HIS OWN LOVE FOR US IN THIS: WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS, CHRIST DIED FOR US.  Verse ten makes it worse;

FOR IF, WHEN WE WERE GOD’S ENEMIES, WE WERE RECONCILED TO HIM THROUGH THE DEATH OF HIS SON, HOW MUCH MORE, HAVING BEEN RECONCILED, SHALL WE BE SAVED THROUGH HIS LIFE. Paul elaborates; THE OLD IS GONE, THE NEW HAS COME!

        Thank God!  Being a NEW CREATION means we cease being sinners and enemies of God.  Another thing to note about this term is that the scope of our new life includes all aspects of our personhood. Jesus similarly taught Nicodemus: “NO ONE CAN SEE THE KINGDOM OF GOD UNLESS HE IS BORN AGAIN” (JHN 3:3). This is a “total makeover!” Accordingly, we must think and act in NEW CREATION modes.

        Now we backtrack to verse sixteen to find the application of verse seventeen (and verses eleven through fifteen): our new attitude toward one another (i.e., toward Christ).

        One aspect of being new creations is that we reject a WORLDLY POINT OF VIEW. FROM NOW ON we look at people from God’s point of view.  When we do we see…

  • Victims of the Enemy, not the enemy.
  • People in need.
  • Brothers & sisters; in fact or in potential.

Where worldly eyes see barriers, godly eyes see bridges God has built.

        Paul offers Jesus as an example.  He and others once viewed Jesus from a worldly point of view and saw only a Galilean troublemaker.  Later, with acute vision bestowed by faith, Paul saw Him truthfully, as the Great Reconciler.

 

God did this for you (18-21).

        The old creation did not come about by human will, nor has the NEW CREATION.  Instead, as verse eighteen asserts, ALL THIS IS FROM GOD.

That fact rules out our intellect, willpower, & imagination: we don’t make it up.

        God did it by reconciling US TO HIMSELF THROUGH CHRIST (18).  “Reconciling” means restoring our relationship with God which had been

broken by our sin.

        THROUGH CHRIST means that Jesus is the universal solution to the universal problem of sin.  But God doesn’t force His solution on anyone; only those who receive it willingly will be restored.

         Verses 19-21 reveal that God reconciled us in three steps.

    • 19 = GOD WAS RECONCILING THE WORLD TO HIMSELF IN CHRIST. God joined us & identified with us in the human life of Jesus Christ.  His blood paid our penalty.
    • 21 = GOD MADE HIM WHO HAD NO SIN TO BE SIN FOR US… Jesus suffered our guilt and shame. Because He was innocent He was the perfect sacrifice for sin.
  • Imputation is found in v. 19 NOT COUNTING MEN’S SINS AGAINST THEM. The solution is to impute (assign) righteous status to all who accept Him
  • Delegation .
    • 19 = AND HE HAS COMMITTED TO US THE MESSAGE OF RECONCILIATION. God has delegated to us the responsibility of making Him known to people we encounter.
    • 20 = WE ARE THEREFORE CHRIST’S AMBASSADORS… We represent our homeland & act w/t authority of our Leader.

 

Get busy and receive His grace today (1-2).

        Paul was concerned that the church live according to this message of reconciliation. He demonstrated his concern by using emphatic language: AS GOD’S FELLOW WORKERS WE URGE YOU.  His expression, FELLOW WORKERS, shows Paul’s identification with the church in Corinth and reminds us today that we are responsible with and for one another. Use of the first person pronoun (WE) connects God & Paul.  (See 1 Corinthians 3:9 where Paul describes himself as “God’s fellow-worker.”) So in a sense, Paul is also pulling rank, telling them to get in line!

        Chapter six, verse one presents some difficulty to the interpreter.  The call to RECEIVE GOD’S GRACE is not the hard part.  In fact, RECONCILIATION is the subject of the passage.

        The challenging bit is when he urges them not to receive GOD’S GRACE IN VAIN.  How is that possible? Apart from the egotistical use of the word, VAIN means fruitless, ineffective, unsuccessful, or frustrated. How could that happen?

Paul urged them to avoid a superficial commitment to Christ.  A sign of inauthentic discipleship: a lack of godly fruit. He quoted Scripture (Isaiah 49:8) to reinforce his point, emphasizing it is God’s will to act, decide, choose Him.

Borrowing TIME and DAY OF SALVATION from the Isaiah quote, Paul urged a timely, even immediate response = NOW IS THE TIME OF GOD’S FAVOR, NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION.

        If that alone doesn’t motivate you, consider a couple other things. One, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is imminent.  Until He comes again, we’re in a season of grace, where reconciliation can happen.  After He appears, there’ll be no more opportunity.

        Second, our own death is also immanent.  As today could be our last, we must bear fruit. Thus, in addition to the command of God, we have two additional excellent reasons to act NOW, not wait.  Whether we’re talking about accepting Christ as Savior or obeying Him as Lord, now is the moment; the door of opportunity has been swung open.

 

        God made us new creations so that we will choose to be agents of change.  We are entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation, helping the world to turn back to God. 

        I came across a negative example of reconciliation in Today in the Word, July 5, 1993.

        “One New Year’s Eve at London’s Garrick Club, British dramatist Frederick Lonsdale was asked by Seymour Hicks to reconcile with a fellow member. The two had quarreled in the past and never restored their friendship. ‘You must,’ Hicks said to Lonsdale. ‘It is very unkind to be unfriendly at such a time. Go over now and wish him a happy New Year.’

        “So Lonsdale crossed the room and spoke to his enemy. ‘I wish you a happy New Year,’ he said, ‘but only one’.”

        That’s not going to get it done, will it?

        God gives us an entirely new life to live in Christ.  We are made new creations to serve as ambassadors from the Kingdom of God to this poor, sin-sick world.  We have a lot of work to be done in an uncertain but ever-shrinking amount of time.  Let’s get started!

Hugh Otter B. Fruitful

(Read Acts 2:42-47.)

        A woman in Alabama was to bake a cake for her Baptist Church ladies’ bake sale, but entirely forgot about it until she awoke on the morning of the sale.  Rifling through her cupboards, she found an old angel food cake mix and threw it together.  While it baked, she dressed for work.

        When she took the cake from the oven, the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured.  There was no time nor resource to bake another.  Not wanting to lose face among the church ladies, she hurriedly looked around for something she could use to build up the center of the cake.

        She settled on a roll of toilet paper which she put in the droopy center of the cake and then covered the whole thing over with icing.  Standing back to admire her handiwork, she pronounced it “Beautiful!”

        Before leaving the house to drop the cake off at the church on the way to work, she woke her teenage daughter and told her to be at the bake sale precisely when it opened at 9 am, buy t cake & bring it home.

        You may be surprised to find that the drowsy daughter didn’t make it to the church exactly at 9 am.  When she did arrive, she found that her mother’s cake had already been sold!  She called her mother to deliver the horrifying news.  The woman spent the entire day and a sleepless night worrying about who had purchased the faux cake.

        The next day an elegant bridal shower was being held at the home of a fellow church member.  While she wasn’t particularly friendly toward the hostess – she considered her a snob – the woman felt obligated to go.

        She was horrified when her cake was presented as dessert!

        She was about to take the hostess aside and confess when one of the other guest exclaimed, “What a beautiful cake!”

        The snobbish hostess grinned with pride and said, “Thank you, I baked it myself!”

        The woman thought to herself, “God is good.”  She sat back and watched as her hostess grabbed the cake knife…

        We naturally think god is good when the other person gets their “just desserts,” but are less likely to think that way when it’s us.  Getting what we deserve is what Jesus called the “fruit” of our character.  Decisions made repeatedly become character and the outcome of all that reveals the character within each of us.

        What’s true on an individual level is also true on a church level.  What we look like on the outside does not determine what fruits we bear, it’s what really exists under the icing. We must choose Christ to bear Christian fruit.

(George Goldtrap, as quoted in The Joyful Noiseletter, Vol. 27, No. 4, July-August 2012.)

THESIS = The First Church enjoyed fruitful ministry because they were faithful followers.

Vs. 46-47 (NIV) = Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

WHERE they met reveals a lot about the First Church.

        They met publicly in the TEMPLE.  Because the temple courtyards provided a large open space where their mega-church could gather.  The courtyards were accessible to Gentiles and frequented by Jews.

        Originally they saw themselves as practicing the Jewish faith completed by Jesus.  Therefore the temple was still God’s house; it was still sacred in their lives, their faith and practice.  They shared the pride godly Jews felt about the Temple and all it represented.

        It was a familiar place and a physical focus of their faith. When in Jerusalem, a godly Jew went to the Temple three times a day to pray.  Living elsewhere, a godly Jew faced the direction of the Temple to pray.

        The courtyards of the Temple were the customary place to meet for teaching.  Later, as the Church was dispersed from Jerusalem, they took this practice with them and met in the local synagogues.

        They also met privately in their HOMES.  They held services in courtyards  of private homes (see Philemon 2; Colossians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 16:19).  This was a practical solution and good stewardship.  Buildings require resources.  the practice kept the local churches smaller & more personal, like our “cell groups” today.  It was customary for Jewish feasts (i.e., the Passover) to be observed in homes.

        This “multi-site plan” is a comprehensive approach to ministry we can find useful and worth copying.  The temple gatherings were primarily evangelistic in nature, but also met worship and service goals.  The “living room” gatherings in private homes had a primary purpose of discipleship, but also met worship and fellowship goals.  Of course, the extraordinary stewardship exhibited in the First Church empowered both.

WHAT they did AS they met reveals more.

        The text informs us they BROKE BREAD and ATE TOGETHER.  BROKE BREAD refers to both a meal and the Lord’s Supper: the eucharisto.  This Love Feast was THE means of worship and service, & feeding the underclass.

        They were PRAISING GOD daily.  Every activity of the church should be a service of worship, celebrating God before all people.  If not for God we wouldn’t be here!

        They enjoyed THE FAVOR OF ALL PEOPLE.  I wonder what that feels like.  It might mean that people know where we’re located, at least!  This was a church full of joy: because they spread it about, they enjoyed wide favor.

HOW they did it sets an example for us to follow.

        They met EVERY DAY.  Any mention I make of daily worship falls on blank stares and deaf ears.  “Not realistic,” people inform me gravely.  Both clergy and lay people alike think the notion of daily worship is as quaint as togas.

        Let me provoke your thinking on this subject with two questions.  Is it possible that we are over-invested in our personal, private lives?  If we restore balance by investing more in God will it result in a better blessing?  If the answer to either of those questions is “Yes,” we’ve got to re-prioritize.

        They had GLAD and SINCERE HEARTS.  Every Christian ought to have a GLAD heart.  When done right, the Christian faith is fun.  Joy is an inevitable result of true discipleship.  If church is boring, uneventful, or unfulfilling, the fault is not with God.  In the original language, the word  SINCERE means “without stones to trip on.”  With nothing false in their character, they gave no excuse to trip others up.

WHY did God do this?  Simple: to build His Church.

        The phrase THE LORD ADDED TO THEIR NUMBER is a needed reminder that it is God who saves.  Our part is to create a space where God is made known.  If we are faithful, God will make us fruitful.

        This is also a way God shows His approval of a church.  If a church is worthy of His trust, He will place new believers in their care.

        It also reinforces the necessity of true faith being the qualification for membership. This phrase summarizes New Testament teaching that makes a distinction between those who are converts in appearance only & those who are a new creation.  Human eyes can’t always telling the difference, but God knows.

        I hope I’ve clearly placed an emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  That doctrine is no excuse of inactivity or even passivity, however.  God calls us to be more than consumers.  We are to be producers as well.  One part of discipleship is producing fruit.  The outcomes of a faithful life are two-fold:

  • See Matthew 28:19, where Jesus identifies disciple-making as our mission. That includes producing new converts and maturing existing ones.
  • See John 15, where Jesus teaches that LOVE is both a means and an end to discipleship. Real disciples love more often and more deeply. 

        OK, I admit to being guilty of making this word my soap box.  Don’t miss the word DAILY in the text. Does anyone really think it is a coincidence that they met daily and the Lord added to their number daily?  I’d suggest we are seeing a spiritual principle at work: “Whatever you sow, you shall reap.  If you sow sparingly, you shall reap sparingly.”  The greater sacrifice opens the door to greater blessing.  That’s biblical.

        Who was the Lord adding to the First Church?  THOSE WHO WERE BEING SAVED.  “Being saved” is a curious phrase.  What’s that imply?  A Greek word for “church” means “the called-out ones.”  Who is doing the calling?  God.  We don’t  call ourselves.  So again we are reminded that salvation is 99.9% an act of God.  It is not by any work that we are saved, but only by a faithful acceptance of the work of God.

        I believe that phrase is also meant to throw us back upon our dependence on the Holy Spirit.  It is God’s Spirit who empowers everything we do that is godly.  For a wonderful and unique description of this, see Judges 6:34, where it is written, THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CLOTHED HIMSELF WITH GIDEON.  The Bible also says that the Spirit is within us, but I prefer this reading because it places the emphasis squarely on the Holy Spirit.

        While we may be assuming too much from a single portion of a sentence, I believe this oddly passive-voiced verb without a clear temporal reference is also meant to remind us that salvation is a life-long process.  BEING SAVED is like saying, “Under Construction.”  Kind of like the streets and highways of our land during the summer months…

        “A wealthy lawyer walked along a crowded sidewalk in London when he felt a hand slip into his pocket.  He whirled around and seized the thief by the wrist.  ‘Why did you try to rob me?’ James Henderson demanded sternly.

        “‘Because, sir,’ the would-be pickpocket said, ‘I am out of work and hungry.’

        “‘Come along with me,’ Henderson said.  He took the penniless man to a restaurant and ordered two meals.

        “When they had finished eating, the man told how he had been in prison and found it difficult to obtain a job because of his bad name.  ‘I have no name,’ he said.  There is nothing left to return but to return to the old life of crime.  What can a man do without a name?’

        “The man’s story and question greatly impressed the lawyer.  After some thought, he said, ‘For forty years I have borne the name of James Henderson unsullied.  You say you have no name?  I’ll give you my name.  Take your new name out into the world and keep it clean and honorable.’

        “‘Do you really mean it?’ cried the thief brokenly.

        “‘Of course I mean it,’ said the lawyer.  ‘And to prove it, I’ll recommend you, in the name of James Henderson, to a manufacturing firm with whom I have some influence.’

        “The lawyer found a job for the former thief and kept in touch with him for many months.  However, through travel and a change of residence, he lost contact with his namesake.

        “Fifteen years later he was told a visitor awaited him in the reception room of his office.  He was startled to read the name ‘James Henderson’ on the man’s business card.  Entering the reception room, he met a tall, strikingly handsome man dressed like a gentleman. 

        “As they shook hands, the visitor said, ‘Sir, I have called to tell you today I have been made partner in the firm to which you recommended me fifteen years ago.  All that you see me to be, I owe to your noble generosity; and above all, to the gift of your name.  The name of James Henderson is still unsullied.  God bless you, sir, and reward you!’

        “The thief was offered a new name and made a new start in life.  We, too, have been offered a new name – Christian.  And it is the plan of the One who has given us this new name that we make a new start in life.”

(Desmond Hills, Signs of the Times, June, 2004.)