Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants…

7 Aug

Jesus doesn’t want believers?  What?  Yes, he does.  Doesn’t he?

Yes, he does.  He even said “Believe in me.”  Read the Gospel of John and you’ll hear Jesus say that many times.

So a couple of years ago the leader of my denomination, Bishop Bruce Hill, made the statement in the title of this post.  When I first heard it, I thought it sounded so wrong.  A Bishop is supposed to uphold truth!  How could he say that???  See if it sounds wrong to you too: Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.

Is our Bishop wrong?

Nope, not at all.  Here’s why.

Belief is important.  Jesus did want people to believe in him.  Jesus wanted them to learn some things.  There is content to the message of the Good News.  It is a story that has specific details.

What did he want people to believe?  One of Jesus’ first followers, Paul, summarized the content of the Good News in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

Believing the details of that story is important. But here is why Bishop Hill is absolutely correct when he said, “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples”: believing is not the end product.

Remember what James the brother of Jesus said in his letter?  In James 2:19 he wrote, “You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that.”  Clearly, believing is not enough, if demons do it.  There has to be something else that separates the demons from those who are true followers of Jesus.  James goes on to tell us exactly what that something else is when he says, “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”  It is not enough to just believe.

Remember the people in Matthew 7:21-23 who thought they were absolutely going to get into the Kingdom of Heaven?  They were believers.  Jesus shocks them when he says, “Away from me, I never knew you.”

There is something more than believing!  We have do something, James said, to move from believing into truly being known by Jesus.  This is what our Bishop is getting at when he says “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.”

Jesus himself taught us how to be assured that we would not hear those awful words, “Away from me, I never knew you.” He says later in Matthew that we can know that we are his disciples if we deny ourselves, carry our cross and follow him.  That is clearly moving beyond belief.  Belief is not enough.  We must believe and become his disciple. Our lives must show by how we live that we not only believe, but we also are living out that belief.

In my sermons, and in thus in this blog, I talk quite a lot about being disciples.  A very important way that Jesus wants us to live out our belief in him is not only to be his disciples, but also to make more disciples.

In what were some of his last words, found in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus told that his disciples priority #1 for them, their mission, was to make more disciples.

We need to ask, therefore, what is a disciple?  If this is our mission from our Lord, we should know what a disciple is and how to help others become disciples who can make more disciples.  A disciple is a believer who practices spiritual disciplines and lives out the life of Christ, a huge component of which is to make more disciples.

Paul would refer to this when he said to his disciple Timothy, “Teach men who can teach others.”  He said that in 2 Timothy 2:2.  Disciples of Jesus will make more disciples.  That is our mission.

It was revolutionary to me when I first heard that disciples should make more disciples.  We are not to make believers.  I always thought we Christians were supposed to get people to believe in Jesus, to pray a prayer of belief, and then hope they would follow through and become disciples of Jesus.  But, really, that disciple part was a bonus, it wasn’t really important.  Jesus, however, didn’t teach us that, and he himself actually made disciples. Take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 28:19-20.  Jesus envisioned a progression, a multiplication, that would continue. His  disciples would make more disciples who can make more disciples…a cycle that is never-ending.

That cycle has been at work for 2000 years!  Read the book of Acts, and you see how those original 12 disciples made more disciples who made more disciples, and the work of making disciples for Jesus spread beyond Jerusalem to the Middle East and Europe and Africa and Asia and the Americas…and here we are.

A lady from Faith Church, Alice, told the story about a group at a different church that she went to when she was a young mom.  The group had an older lady of whom Alice said, “I wanted to be like her”.  That’s the heart of a disciple.  Saying “I want to be like them.”  Paul once said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  Discipleship is a cycle that continues from person to person.  Now years later there are people in Faith Church who are saying “I want to be like Alice Royer”!

This is how Jesus made his disciples.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Get out your Bible or open it on an app, or online.  Would you take a few moments and walk through the book of Matthew with me, looking for descriptions of how Jesus made disciples?

Let’s start at Mt. 4:19-22 where Jesus first meets a couple of the guys who would become his disciples. This is where it all starts.  He looks at them and says, “Follow me,” and Matthew tells us, “at once they left.”  It’s kind of shocking that people would just up and leave their jobs to follow a preacher who is walking around town.  But scholars tell us that those guys who followed Jesus started out as Cultural Disciples. It was common practice in their society for people to leave all and follow a teacher.  This was step one of the process that Jesus used to make disciples.  He invited them to follow him.

Jump ahead to Mt. 8:18-22 and notice the progression to verse 23.  Jesus is expanding on what following him actually means.  There is a cost to it.  And what happens?  Jesus’ disciples physically got into a boat with him, still following him.

Also in Mt. 9:9 through 19, another man joins Jesus’ crew of disciples.  Matthew!  The guy writing the story.  He was a tax collector, considered a sinner.  The religious elite look at Jesus having dinner with Matthew and ask Jesus’ other disciples, “Why is Jesus eating with a sinner?”  Jesus heard it, responding, making it very clear that his mission included even those who were normally considered outcasts.  That is instructive for us.  Jesus wants all people to be his disciples.

Jump down to Matthew 9:19, and what do we see is happening in this group of disciples?  Jesus gets up to respond to a situation, and his disciples get up too.  They are following him.

After Step 1, the invitation,  we come to Step 2 of discipleship.  Thus far they have been answering the call to follow him.  Basically, they just accepted the invitation to follow him, and they watched him.  Now it goes a bit further.

Disciples are also learners. Step 2 is that they sat under Jesus’ teaching.  This has already started in Matthew chapters 5-7, where Jesus gives a lengthy teaching called The Sermon on the Mount.  At the beginning of that sermon, in verses 5:1-2, we see that his disciples are there, probably in the front row.

Jump ahead to where we left off in Matthew, and we come to chapter 10.  What do we see?  A lot of red words, if your Bible prints the words of Jesus in red.  Look at 10:1-5.  Jesus gives them authority, Matthew names the 12 disciples, and then we read in verse 5 that Jesus instructed them.  Earlier in chapters 5-7 he was teaching them in the midst of a large crowd.  Now in chapter 10 he is focused solely on his disciples. No one else is present.

Next turn to Mt. 12:46-13:10 and we see more teaching by Jesus.  Continue on to 13:36 and the rest of the chapter 13, and what do we see?  More focused teaching for his disciples.  Jesus is investing personally in these guys.

That is the second step: focused, individual investment, teaching where they learn his ways.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He moves onto a third step, Shared Experiences – They saw his example. 

This was already starting a bit back in Mt. 8:23-27 when he calmed the storm and in Mt. 9:35-38 when they watched him in ministry, doing miracles, teaching and interacting with people.  Here at the end of chapter nine, though, he implants an idea in their head.  See it there in verse 38? “Ask the Lord to send out more workers.”  Jesus is laying a foundation for these guys. Basically, “you have seen my example, ask God to raise up more people to do what I am doing.”  Who might Jesus have in mind to be the answer to this prayer?

Jesus after investing time and teaching into these guys, after showing them an example of what life in the Kingdom is all about, he moves to Step 4 when he gives them the opportunity to be his co-laborers.

Remember that prayer at the end of chapter 9, “pray that God will send laborers?”  Look what happens in chapter 10.  He gave them power and authority, and he sends them out!  Jesus gives them the tools to serve, and then gives them the opportunity to serve.  A mission trip.  They are now the answer to that prayer, as they go on the mission trip.  In the process they are learning to make more disciples.

We have to jump out of Matthew’s account to broaden the story a bit.  In Luke 10 there is a further example of this, a second mission trip.  The first mission trip was just for the 12 disciples.  This second mission trip is for 72, Luke tells us.  Jesus is getting more people involved.

And look what happens in Luke 10:17.  They had an awesome trip!  In verse 21, Jesus is ecstatic! These men who have been following him for months are becoming disciples who can make more disciples.

These men have gone through a progression of following him, watching him, and then moving on to learning from him, having shared experiences with him, and now they are actually doing what he did.  Where there used to be one guy doing the work of the ministry, there are now 72!  This is a picture of discipleship.

You know what is amazing to consider at this point?  These guys were disciples, but they were not fully convinced believers!  Think about it.  After all this that we have seen about how Jesus shaped these men into his disciples, what happened when Jesus was arrested in the Garden?  One of those men completely betrayed Jesus, leading the soldiers to arrest him.  All the rest of the men ran away, and the one who made the biggest claims about being Jesus’ best follower, Peter, denied him three times.  The next day as he hung on the cross, just one of the 12 disciples, John, came by to see him.  Two women were there, one of which was his mom, Mary.

Would you call those disciples believers?  They are not a pretty picture of believers.  Instead they look a lot more like betrayers, deniers, and cowards.

Except for one important detail.  Jesus had deeply invested in these men.  They might not have been committed believers, but he had formed them as disciples.  And those three years of following him, learning from him, having shared experiences with him, and finally of doing what he did, those three years were not wasted.

Because when he rises from the dead, and when he reveals himself to them, the belief finally catches up with their discipleship.

Now we can return to Mt. 28:19-20.  The disciples who are now believers have a whole new view of what it means to follow Jesus.  They have a new mission, to make more disciples.  They can go back through the past three years and review how Jesus made them into disciples, and they can use the same method to make more disciples.

So can we.

For so many years, many Christians have been taught a two-stage view of helping people follow Christ: First we share the content, getting people to believe in God. Second, we reach out to them and help them to be his disciples.

But many people are looking at that two-part method and thinking that it might not be appropriate.  Review all we studied in Matthew already in this post: what did Jesus do?  Did he make his disciples pray a prayer first?  No. He just said “Follow me”.  He didn’t try to get the disciples to believe anything.  He didn’t make them sign off that they believed certain things about them.  He just said “follow me”.  Three years later, and much investment later, they still had questions about who he was.  But as we have seen, their belief caught up with their discipleship.

And now what about us?  How do we make disciples?  Disciples do what their discipler does.

So don’t require people to believe first.  Lead them into doing something, living the lifestyle of Jesus.  The belief will catch up! No doubt, some people will believe first and then learn to be disciples.  There is no one right method.  But if we have any amount of respect for Jesus and how he made disciples, we would do well to follow his example.

What, then, do we actually have people do?  How do we lead them into the lifestyle of Jesus?  What are elements of the lifestyle of Christ that we can invite people to participate in?  Some sort of serving? We have to spend time with them. How am I to disciple people if I never spend time with them?  We need to open up space in our lives to them.

I also urge you to disciple your family first.  You parents and grandparents, make it your passion to disciple your kids.  Use that four stage process that Jesus used.

Then disciple others.  Maybe someone in your church.  Maybe a neighbor.  Maybe a coworker.

Then do what Jesus did.  Live as a disciple.  Teach others what you were taught.  Practice the spiritual disciplines, teach others to do the same.

Obviously, we can’t disciple people precisely like Jesus did.   He was an itinerant preacher.  His job was to walk around Israel and preach and do miracles.  And people followed him.

We don’t have a life like that.  Jesus did not intend that we would become itinerant preachers who walk around our towns and cities with 12 people following us.  We have families, houses, jobs, bills.  As did the people in the very first churches which we read about in the book of Acts.  Read the book of Acts and what we find is that we can make disciples in any setting.

Also, remember that you are not alone as you make disciples.

Let’s talk about that guy Peter, the disciple who denied that he even know Jesus.  In Luke’s Gospel, Luke 22:31, we read that earlier in that evening before Jesus was arrested, he said to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift you disciples as wheat, but I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith will not fail.  When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

If I’m Peter I’m thinking “Jesus, I love you, but you say some really strange stuff sometimes.”  Peter wasn’t thinking anything at all about his faith failing.  He thought he was strong.  But I suspect these words stuck with Peter, based on what we read later.  Peter would go on to deny Jesus, and yet his faith didn’t fail.  By denying Jesus he messed up terribly, and he knew it.  After the rooster crowed just as Jesus said it would after Peter denied him, Peter went away weeping bitter tears.  It seemed like an abject failure of Jesus’ discipleship of Peter.  Peter was Jesus’ top guy.  Jesus spent loads of time with Peter.  He even once told Peter that he was the rock on whom he was going to build his church.  And what happened?  When it really counted, when Jesus needed his followers most, Peter said he didn’t know Jesus at all.  But there is a loophole.

Remember what Jesus said to Peter?  “I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail.”  What I want to focus on is the prayer part.  Jesus prayed for his disciples, and in particular Peter.  He knew they were about to go through an incredibly difficult time.  He knew they would run away from him, and Peter would deny him.  But he had prayed for them.

Jesus knew that he wasn’t alone in the disciple-making process.  He prayed to God on behalf of his disciples.  So should we.  You are not alone as you seek to make disciples of your kids, when you pray for them.

You are not alone as you seek to make disciples of your friends, as you pray for them.

Yes, there is much to do with a disciple, much to teach them, but you are not alone when you pray for them.

So who can you disciple?  Who can you invite to follow you?

And who can you ask to disciple you?

Discipleship really is about training others and being trained yourself.  I love the imagery of training because if you’ve ever had a trainer, whether at the gym, or at work, you can picture it.  They are showing you how to do something new.  You might not believe in them or in yourself.  But you start practicing.  They step by step guide you into a new life.  And the belief catches up.

Who is training you?  Who are you training?

When Jesus was people-watching and taught his disciples how to be generous

1 Aug

Image result for givingI love people-watching.  When I was in college, I took a class in which one of our assignments was to go to a place where lots of people walk by and we had to people-watch. While we were watching them, we were to pray that God would give us a heart for people.  I never did this before, at least on purpose like that, and I found that it is fun!  The mall is a great place.  You see people do interesting things!  I encourage you to try it.

There was a time in Mark’s account of Jesus’  life where we read about Jesus and his disciples at the temple, and they are watching people when something very interesting goes down right in from them.

Here’s the story from Mark 12:41-44:

     Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

 

The rich people they watched threw in large amounts.  Then along comes a widow who gives what?  The NIV calls it “two very small copper coins”.  In the language this was written in, Greek, the coins are called lepta.  But what is a lepta?

Scholars tell us that are many options for what these coins might be.  Best guess is called a Prutah, one version depicted below.  These were very common in Judea.

What were they worth?  The NIV says “a fraction of a penny”.  Other translations say “a cent.”  The Greek says they are equal to a kodrantes, which is a coin with a tiny value.  So the NIV gets it right.  The widow has given hardly anything at all.  Pennies.

I know Ben Franklin said “a penny saved is a penny earned” but he said that in the 1700s.  Transport Mr. Franklin to 2017 and he might be in line to argue that we should just get rid of the penny.

CBS News reported last year that pennies cost 1.5 cents to make.  Relative to their face value, the report states, pennies are in fact the most expensive coin the US Mint makes.  And they are worth the least.  Time to get rid of the penny!

This lady gives pennies in the offering.  It is easy to think, Well, that’s a horrible offering.  She’s giving money that is basically worthless.  What can God do with a couple pennies?  It is likewise easy to think the rich people gave a gift that is far more important, meaningful and valuable.  The rich people gave a gift that will actually make a difference!

That is, until Jesus points out something about the difference between the rich people and the widow.  The widow put everything she had in the treasury.  And Jesus’ conclusion is that the widow was the one who put in the most!

When I read this I wondered if it was just a one-time thing?  Maybe this widow never gave much at all during her lifetime.  And on that day she picked up two pennies and thought “Huh, these are worthless, I’ll just drop them in the temple treasury.” Maybe she was actually trying to look good and gain praise for herself.

But I don’t think so.  The reason I don’t think so is because it was Jesus who was people watching.  Jesus’ comments show that he had an inside view of this woman’s situation.  He knew she was giving all she had. He knew her heart, that her gift was a gift of complete surrender to the Lord.

When I think about that, I think it is much more likely that she was a woman who wasn’t making a one-time gift, or a random gift.  She is showing us what happens when a person knows how to practice the discipline of giving.

So how do we grow a habit, a discipline, of giving financially?

First of all, you can grow a habit of giving when you have the eternal view of giving.  In his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus talked about storing up treasure in heaven.

See your giving as having eternal value.  When you give an offering, you are not just giving money that is going into the church’s bank account here on earth.  You are making a spiritual impact in God’s Kingdom.

Next, we need to see ourselves as stewards of God’s money.  Jesus’ close friend, Peter, would later write about this.  See 1 Peter 4:10.  It is a hard statement, but we need to see our money is not ours.  It seems like it is ours because we work for it, we invest it, we bank it, we spend it.  It is really easy to forget that it is God who enables us to earn it, to have the money.  We simply need to see him as the source of it all.  It is his money, his bank account, his debit card, his credit card.  We need to spend his money in a way that honors him.

Third, God loves a cheerful giver.  Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 9:7 when he says “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Cheerful here is the word in Greek “hilaros” which is where we get our word “hilarious”.  God loves a hilarious giver.  By using the word “Hilaros” Paul is not saying that giving should be funny or comical and you’re laughing your head off.  Instead it is the idea of great joy in giving.

We need to see it as a joy to give.  We can be excited about it, knowing that giving is being obedient to God, and that God says he will bless us.  That does not mean that if you give a regular joyful offering to the church, God is going to turn you into a millionaire.  But instead it means that you will be trusting in him, and you’ll have the blessing of knowing that you are being obedient to God.  And perhaps the blessing won’t be realized until heaven.

There was a person in Faith Church who years ago came to worship with $10 in their wallet.  This person was a struggling single mom, desperate just to keep a roof over her kids’ heads.  She could have used that $10 to feed her kids lunch after church.  There is nothing wrong with feeding your kids.  But right in the middle of worship, that person felt convicted that God wanted her to give her $10 to the church.  It wasn’t a guilt-ridden decision.  Instead she gave joyfully, knowing she could trust God.

After worship was over another person in the church came up to her, having no idea what had just happened, and gave her $10 saying, “I feel the Lord wanted me to give you this.”

Next, know that you can give joyfully and sacrificially because God knows what you need and he is faithful to his promises to take care of you.

I also heard of a person who gave away a month’s salary and told not a soul about it.  One day that month a lady stopped by with groceries for this person and their family.

Or have you heard of George Mueller and the orphanages?  Mueller was a deeply godly man in England who ran a number of orphanages.  As you can imagine, it takes a lot of money to care for children and staff in an orphanage.  And Mueller had more than one!  But his practice was not to have a fundraising department.  Instead he would pray, and he would accept speaking invitations at churches to talk about the ministry.  He would not ask for money.  People would give anyway!  One day early on, the Muellers and the group of orphans sat down at the dinner table to eat.  There was no food left.  They set out the plates and silverware, and rather than eat, they prayed.  Just as they were praying, a bread man came knocking on the door.  He had day old bread that he could no longer sell, and he wanted to see if the Muellers could use it.

Then there is the story of a family from Faith Church that cared for foster children.  One day they received a call asking if they could care for a child immediately.  They had no bed for the child.  They prayed, and a bed showed up.

God is faithful.  As Isaiah 41:10 says, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

Again the teaching of Scripture is not that God will make you rich, or make life easy, if you give generously.  But he has promised to take care of your needs.

I recently learned of a lady who said the curious phrase, “I would be afraid not to give.”  We shouldn’t give out of fear, as if God is going to strike us with lightning if we don’t put 10% of our income in the offering basket at church each week.  That is not what this lady meant.  When she said “I would be afraid not to give,” her heart was in the right place.  She feared depending on herself, when God calls us to depend on him.

Do you need to practice the spiritual discipline of giving?  I encourage you to start.  But maybe get a trainer.  Who do you know that is a very generous person?  Who do you know that gives regularly, generously, sacrificially, and cheerfully?  Talk to them, and ask them to train you how to give.

Learning how to say “Yes” and “No” to serving in the church

24 Jul

Image result for yes and noHow should we view serving in the church?  (For that matter, how should we view serving at work, serving at home, serving our neighbors?).

Each of us should ask: am I serving like God wants me to?  Are you saying “Yes” enough?  Are you saying “No” enough?  How should we respond to all the opportunities there are for serving?

In my weekly Saturday morning email to Faith Church I mentioned the 80/20 principle that says 80% of the ministry of the church is done by 20% of the people.  That’s a pretty cynical view, and it comes from people who are in churches where that ratio might be true.  I am here to say that Faith Church is NOT following the 80/20 rule.  I guess that makes us rule-breakers!  I went down through the list of all 130 or so people in our church family, and I think we are much closer to something like a 90/90 rule.  90% of the people are doing 90% of the work.  That’s is so awesome.  I love how you serve, Faith Church!

But does that mean that mean we are in the clear and don’t need to think about serving?  Let’s take some time to look at what Jesus had to say about the discipline of serving.

Take a look at John 13:1-17.  In this famous and astounding story, Jesus demonstrates for us how to view our connection to the church.  Just hours before his arrest, trial, beating and crucifixion, Jesus has a final meal with his followers.  John was there, recording the event for us, depicting Jesus going one by one to each of his disciples, washing their feet.  At Faith Church we re-enact this many years on Maundy Thursday.  It is very, very humbling to hold someone’s crusty feet in your hands and wash them.  We don’t believe that Jesus wanted us to practice ritual footwashing.  That’s not why he washed his disciples’ feet.  While it is not wrong to reenact the ritual if done with the right motivation, Jesus had something else in mind.

That night, Jesus had every right to ask his disciples to serve him.  He is the Messiah, the King, and God in the flesh, for goodness sake.  He was their leader, their teacher, Rabbi.  They were his disciples.  They should have been washing his feet.

Instead he showed them, and he showed us, that those of us who are his disciples will have a totally different view of the world.  In a world of consumers, we are called to be servants.  In a world where the norm is to be entertained or to be pleased, we are called to be selfless.  We should see our connection to a church family, therefore, as selfless servants.

Right away, if you’re like me, you start thinking, “Man, being a servant sounds horrible.”  Giving of yourself?  Selflessness?  They all sound boring, hard, and stupid.  Who would do that?

It is a good question.  Jesus’ call to discipleship is not a call to be consumers.  It is a call to be servants, and that is not easy.  So we have to ask, Is Jesus right?

Many societal observers say that we live in a consumer society.  This week I posted an article on the Faith Church Facebook page about how generally-speaking people view their connection to church in terms of what how a church family can benefit them. People do this because they have been discipled, taught by society to be consumers, taught that life is about what they can get out of it.

We are so used to living in a society that is in large part designed to please us, with loads of choices about clothing, food, and entertainment.  We look at vacation and the movies and TV shows, and many other various forms of comfort, as the epitome of life.  We look at ease and luxury as what we are to attain to.

Consumers, therefore, feel that the way to evaluate church worship services and their participation in a church family is this: how do those church activities make them feel, or benefit them?  If a church worship service doesn’t excite them, they are prone to start feeling down about the church, and move on to go to another church to see if it can do a better job at worship.  If a church family isn’t reaching out to them, they feel the church must be cold and uncaring.  For a consumer, church is not about serving, it is about receiving.

So how about you?  Do you have a consumer mentality about church?

Jesus comes along and says “What you are to attain to, what you are to make your life’s work, is to be a servant.”  And what we find, surprisingly, is that selflessness and serving can be done with joy, leading to a life of deeper satisfaction than we ever thought possible.

In Donald Whitney’s book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, he asks the question “Can you serve your boss and others at work?  Can you be happy when they are promoted and you are overlooked?Can you pray for the ministry of others to prosper, even if it would cast a shadow on yours?”

I think about Whitney’s quote in relationship to The Door Christian Fellowship.

On February 12, 2017, we started renting space to The Door.  They rent five rooms 24/7, and we share many other spaces in the building, including the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.  Faith Church worships at 9am, then we have a combined meet and greet with both churches from 10:15-45am.  Faith Church then heads to classes, and The Door starts their worship at 11am.  Our youth groups have started working together.  Our Leadership Teams have had two prayer times together, including one meal.  We even did a congregational meal together last fall before The Door started renting.  We are so thankful for the partnership with have with The Door.

Before The Door moved in and started worshiping here in February, many of us put in a lot of work to make room for them.  There was a lot of serving and giving and selflessness going on, and I continue to be extremely proud of how Faith Church has been flexible and opened its arms to another congregation. We had to give up space, move classrooms, and even start our worship service one half hour earlier.

In the months leading up to that first Sunday with The Door, I had lots of conversations with people outside of Faith Church about this arrangement.  The feedback I got (and still get) is that what we were/are attempting is fairly monumental, even unheard of.  People were quite curious about it.  I talked about it a lot with family and friends, and one person, whose opinion I really respect, questioned the idea of one church renting to another church, when those churches are very similar.  Rent to a church with a different ethnicity?  No problem.  Faith Church had rented to Hispanic and Ethiopian congregations in the past, but those churches worshiped on Saturdays, and in different languages, so not too much mixing happened.

The Door, however, is nearly identical to Faith Church and worships on Sunday.  Renting to a church so similar to your own?  My trusted friend questioned it.

At the heart of the concern was: What if renting to The Door helps them so much that they grow faster than Faith Church does?  What if people from Faith Church decide they like The Door better?  What if renting to The Door has serious negative consequences for Faith Church?

I appreciated their concern very much.  Actually it kinda scared me.  I really respect this person’s opinion.  What if renting to The Door was a colossal mistake? Here’s the thing though: our Leadership Team had prayed and discussed and prayed some more and discussed some more, and we firmly believed that this was the right thing to do in the Lord’s eyes, for the mission of his Kingdom.

In a way, we wanted our entire church family to serve another entire church family.  And though our time of renting to The Door is still very much in the early stages, only six months, I am growing more and more convinced that it was the right decision.  We truly see it as a mutually beneficial partnership!

Just like all the other disciplines we have been studying, then, serving is a decision, a choice we must make.

It is true that serving is listed as one of the spiritual gifts.  Some say that once you find your spiritual gift, using that gift is a joy, flowing naturally through you with ease.  But that is not always true.  Serving can sometimes be hard.  Serving means giving of yourself and that is not always easy.  Sometimes we just need to serve where needed, because it is needed.  And we might not like to serve in that particular way.

Whitney says that we should serve because God calls us all to serve.  Serve motivated by love for God and his church.  And remember that Jesus showed us and taught us that service is done by a servant.  Normally we think of servants as lower than us.  But identifying ourselves as servants is a must.  Servanthood is a critical element of what it means to be a disciple.

Disciples need to cultivate a lifestyle of serving. It is a choice we make, to take on the identity of a servant, and to practice being a servant.  How can you practice serving as a discipline? How can you have a servant’s heart in every situation? It might mean that you serve, even when your heart is not in it.  It might just be serving because it is a job that needs to be done and no one else is signing up to do it.

But does that mean you need to say “Yes” to every opportunity that comes your way?  I will admit that it is tough to know when to say “No” and not feel bad about it.  It is hard to know when to say “Yes” and sacrificially serve. I was recently asked to consider being the president of our local Ministerium.  I really, really believe in our Ministerium.  I think it is amazing how churches of all shapes and sizes, from a variety of denominations, can work together here in Conestoga Valley.  I was the secretary of the Ministerium for a few years, have taken a year off, and thought I would consider being president.  I wanted to say “Yes”.  I would love to play a more hands-on role in keeping the Ministerium moving forward.  As I talked it over with Michelle, with the PRC, and prayed about it, I sensed I needed to say “No.”  I can’t say for sure that I made the right decision. Often when we say “No” there is a lingering sense of guilt. We don’t want to disappoint people.  We also think we might have been able to help.

Being a faithful servant doesn’t mean that you have to say “Yes” to every opportunity that comes your way. We do need to learn when it is wise and right to say “No”, and when people say “No” to an opportunity to serve, we should allow them to say “No”.  We should receive their “No” graciously, without pushing and pushing them to reconsider.

As you can see though, it is a tricky balance.  We should also be people who are willing to say “Yes,” people who are willing to sacrificially serve just like Jesus did.

I find it difficult to know when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.”  You have to know yourself and your family, and seek wisdom.  Spend time in prayer, asking God for wisdom.

There are certainly times when it is wise to say “No.”  When your kids are young, for example. When you are newlywed.  When you are going through serious stress or difficulty.

There are also good times to say “Yes.”  If you are not serving very much or not at all, perhaps.  If you are noticing that you have a lot of free time to watch TV, be online, or pursue lots of hobbies and vacations.  Maybe you are not serving enough.  Jesus’ example and teaching indicates that we would do well to err on the side of saying “Yes”.  But remember that Jesus also knew when to say “No.”  Many times in the Gospels we read how he left the crowds, got away to a quiet spot for refreshment with his Father.  Jesus didn’t eradicate every disease in the land.  He could have.  Instead he drew a line.  So err on the side of saying “Yes,” but avoid overcommitment and burnout.  Evaluate your heart.  Why are you saying “Yes”? If you are saying “Yes” for the wrong reason, maybe to get attention, to look good, for example, you should say “No.”

Finally, get a trainer.  Who do you know that is an excellent servant?  As them to help you practice the discipline of serving.  Ask them to help guide you when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.”

What depending on God is really like and how to do it

17 Jul

Image result for tree with strong rootsDo you know how to depend on God?

I think it is very easy to say, “Oh, sure, I depend on God.”

What is much harder is to answer the question: “How do you show that you depend on God?”

I would like to submit that you show you depend on God by the choices in your life.   You cannot depend on God only in your mind.

So how are you showing, by the choices you’ve made, that you depend on God?  I’ve been preaching all summer on the various spiritual disciplines, and I’ve included “How to Depend on God” as a spiritual discipline for this reason.  We must choose to make a habit of it.

I have heard many people reactively depend on God.  Often when we go through difficult times, we find ourselves praying more, reaching out for God more, depending on him more because all of our other options for dealing with life have been exhausted.  And during those tough times, we grow close to God.

But what about proactively depending on God?  What can we actually do or practice to show that we are regularly depending on him?

Jesus once taught that depending on him is not just an option, but a necessity, for his disciples.  Take a look at John 15:1-8, and you’ll see what I mean.  He calls it “remaining” in him, or “abiding” in him.

The beautiful thing about remaining, depending on him, Jesus says in John 15, is that when we depend on him we will bear much fruit.

So let’s look at some practical ways we can depend on God.  As you hear these ideas, remember that Jesus said in John 15 that we have to choose to depend on him or we will not have his power flowing through us.

What if every month you purposefully choose something to do that will require God to come through for you?

It could be practicing a new spiritual discipline such as fasting, or spending half a day in prayer.  Maybe start the day by practicing a spiritual discipline of prayer and Bible study.  You could end the day with the practice of a spiritual discipline, in place of TV Time.  In sermon discussion last month, two people each talked about how they spend a lot of time watching TV at night, and they expressed a desire to spend more time in prayer or reading the Bible.  So we talked about how they could possibly meet up one night per week for an hour, skip TV, and pray together, study the Bible together.

Another way to make a choice to depend on God is to give him a radical gift.  Years ago, before I started at Faith Church, a previous pastor challenged the congregation to attempt a really interesting, proactive way to depend on God.  It was called Give-A-Day, in which people would give the equivalency of one day’s salary for the needs of the church.  It was totally voluntary.  Those who wanted to participate would calculate what one day (8 hours) of salary would be, and give it to the church. Then they would prayerfully watch God work.  Is anyone adventurous enough to stick your neck out and depend on God to get you through?

Reflecting on Give-A-Day, one person told me the story of what happened when they chose to participate.  They calculated what one day’s equivalency of their salary would be, knowing that it was a sacrifice.  A scary one.  At the time they lived paycheck to paycheck, and they needed that money to pay the bills and put food on the table.  But they accepted the challenge, and with nervous joy gave the money to God.  That next week they were surprisingly offered overtime, which never happened, and the overtime income replaced all the income they gave for Give-A-Day.  As they recalled their thoughts and feelings, they said “it was exciting to watch God provide.”  They depended on God.

Another great way to show that you are depending on God is to go on a mission trip.  Get out of your own culture.  Maybe sign up for a week-long mission trip which will mean you have to give up one week of vacation.  Watch what happens as you depend on God.

Or you could serve in a ministry in the church that is asking for volunteers.  Even if it is not your favorite way to serve.  Maybe you’d go so far as to say that you can’t stand serving that way.  Would you be willing to depend on God and go for it?

At Faith Church, we are seeking more instrumental musicians for the musical component of our Sunday worship.  Maybe depending on God could mean refreshing your ability to play that musical instrument that is gathering dust in the attic.  I admit that this idea sticks with me personally.   I have been spending too much time playing games on my phone.  There is very little value to those games.  Time wasters.  What if I pulled out our guitar and practiced it, to get to the point of playing in worship?

Here’s another great idea.  What about just simply trying something new to the glory of God?  I listen to a podcast called Invisibilia.  A recent episode featured a guy, Max, who loved his life.  He enjoyed creative work, was paid well, had wonderful friends, and delicious food.  But he began to realize that even though it was all good, he was in a rut: get up, go to work, come home, go out with friends, get up, go to work, come home, go out with friends.

So he created a Facebook app which picked out random events for him to attend.  He went to whatever event the app randomly selected.  It forced himself out of his comfort zone.

It was scary and felt a bit risky.  But it added a new dynamic to his life.  One Christmas Day he used the app. He and a friend showed up at a random people’s house for Christmas dinner.  Max says that he and his friend were nervous as they rang the doorbell.  The host opened the door and welcomed them in. They ended up having a great time.

Depending on God is like that.  Scary, risky, getting us out of our comfort zone, but so vital.  Get out of your comfort zone specifically to depend on God.

The very act of our dependence forces us to give up a little bit of our lives over to him.  Depending on him becomes more and more of a joy, more and more of a delight.

How will you show that you depend on God?

Steps to become humble (yes, you can become more humble!)

10 Jul

Image result for picture of humilityI learned something surprising this week.  I was studying humility for my summer sermon series on Spiritual Exercises (spiritual disciplines).  What surprised me is that humility is not simply a state of mind or a belief.  It starts there, but it doesn’t stay there.  Humility, Jesus in particular showed us, and the biblical writers tell us, is lived.

Consider Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice, which Paul describes like this in Philippians 2: “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Humility is lived out by what we do.  James, the brother of Jesus, says in his letter (James 4:6) “humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.”  Peter, one of Jesus’s closest friends says in 1 Peter 5:6 “humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand.”

We can and should practice humility.  Even if our heart is not totally humble, humility is something that we can work on.  We have to be intentional about it.

So how do we become more humble and practice humility?  I found numerous excellent suggestions from the biblical writers and others.  Here are a few steps to become more humble.

Pray for God to humble you.  Pray for change in your life so that you become humble in your heart. Pray to be humbled? Sounds a bit scary, and it requires that we believe achieving a greater amount of humility is worth it.  But if you want to become more humble, ask God to humble you.

In conversations, practice the 60/40 rule.  My seminary professor, David Dorsey, taught that to a class I was in.  His goal in every conversation was to listen about 60% of the time, and talk 40%.  I love how that emphasizes the humility of listening, but doesn’t negate what you yourself have to offer.Force yourself not to be the one to talk.  Actively battle a tendency to make yourself look good.  Ask the question of people who will speak honestly to you “Do I talk too much?” Discipline yourself to realize how long you are talking.  Try to listen, and ask questions of your conversation partner to show you are listening and interested in them, even if you aren’t!

As the wise teacher says in Proverbs 27:2 “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth.” Force yourself not to say what you have done that is good.  Whether in conversation or on social media.  Ask people to tell you if you are pumping yourself up too much.  Hear me on this.  It is not wrong to recognize that you have abilities.  When I was little, I once overheard my dad saying to my mom that he felt he was getting good at computer programming.  At the time he was in his doctoral studies for computer education.  His comment was simply an attempt at honest evaluation.  He didn’t go around bragging about his skills.  In fact, that was the only time I ever heard him say that, even when he got a computer game he programmed published in a programming magazine.  So there needs to be balance.  Don’t go around saying how great you are.  Let others praise you.  Let your work, your achievements, your skills do the talking.  As I have said to my kids, don’t tell me how good you are at a certain sport.  Show how good you are on the field.  It can be really tricky.  Really evaluate why you are saying what you are saying.  Stay attuned to your heart.  Even if you are giving a rundown of what you did on a certain day, and you are listing it out on Facebook, realize that you can be promoting yourself.  When have you crossed the line from humility into pride?  I can’t answer that for you. But we all should be evaluating that.

Hold your judgment for a while. Here’s a guy that needs a dose of the needed patience humility can bring.

It can be so easy to rush to judgment.  But the humble person says “I’m going to keep my mouth shut and my mind open because I could be totally wrong about this situation.”  Wait to evaluate.  Then wait some more.  Collect data.  Make sure it wasn’t just a one-time anomaly.  Give grace.

Fourth, be like John the Baptist, willing to decrease so that others can rise.  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul says, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”  I recently heard of a guy who was recently hired at a company.  This guy so badly wanted to impress his boss.  He wanted the boss to like him, he wanted to rise.  So when another employee told this guy in confidence that he (the other employee) was looking for other jobs, this guy who wanted to rise saw an opportunity. He spilled the beans to the boss, broke confidence, and told the boss about the other employee’s plans. The boss, of course, talked with the other employee saying, “So, I heard you’re leaving us…”  The other employee was shocked and embarrassed, his confidence betrayed by the guy who wanted to rise.

Fifth, go last.  Jesus also taught quite a bit about humility. In Luke 14:7-15 he was at a big fancy dinner, and he noticed people scrambling for the best seats.  So you know what Jesus says to them, “he who exalts himself with be humbled.  Take the last seat.” Many times Jesus said things like this.  One of his famous sayings was “the last will be first, and the first last.”  So at a gathering, be last.  Make sure everyone else before you goes first. Trying to decide what TV show to watch? Let the other person get their way. Trying to decide where to go to eat, let the other person get their way. Be willing to enter into a situation that you don’t like. Don’t get your way. Give up your way.

Next, Paul taught in Romans 12:16, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”  If you live in the Lancaster, PA, area volunteer at places like CVCCS, Water Street, or Church World Service…and don’t tell anyone about your volunteering.

Here’s another idea: get an accountability partner. Just the act of having someone tell you what you need to work on is humbling, and we need that.

John Dickson, in his excellent book Humilitas, encourages a few more practical steps.  I suggest you get his book and read it.  I’ll share one step he recommends.  Study the lives of the humble.  In the Old Testament book of Numbers, we’re told that Moses was the most humble man alive.  Why? How? Read about his life and find out why. I have some theories, and I’m not going to tell you them.  Find out for yourself.  Of course, study Jesus.  But there are others. Mother Theresa, for example.  Find more people who are considered humble.  Study them, learn how they were humble.  Why they were humble.  Imitate them.

Get a trainer. Know someone you consider humble?  Ask them to help you become more humble.  Get Humilitas and start reading it together, working on implementing its ideas into your lives.

And handle your foray into humility with grace and generosity and love. Don’t be a begrudging humble person. Humility can be, well, humbling.  And being humbled is hard.  It can make us grumpy.  But we need it!

What kind of worship does God really want?

3 Jul

Image result for how to worship

Years ago I had a summer book club at Faith Church, and one of books we read was Jim & Casper Go To Church.  It is written by a Christian, Jim Henderson, and an atheist, Matt Casper.  Jim invited Matt to travel around the country and attend worship services in churches of all shapes and sizes, from a couple massive churches in arenas to smaller churches and many in between.  As he took in worship services at these churches, quite often Casper asked Jim the same question, “Did Jesus really tell you to do that?”

That’s a good question.  It is basically the question, “Is this how God wants us to worship him?”

It could be very easy to be critical of the mega churches. smoke machines, and professional praise bands, and huge auditoriums. But it is a question that should be asked of any church worship service.

On any Sunday at Faith Church, I look around the room we call a sanctuary, and I think that we should ask the same thing: “Did God tell us to do this?”

Do you know the answer to Casper’s question?

God says that we should worship him. No doubt about that.  But did God tell us that he wants to be worshipped like this?

Did he want us to build church buildings?

The answer is No.  God wants us to be people who worship him, Yes.  And we can worship him in a church building, with songs and chairs and classes.  We can worship him with sound systems and video projectors and hymnals and pews.  We can worship him with all of it.

But let us remember that God didn’t ask for all that.  When it comes to worshiping him, he didn’t ask for any of the religious, churchy stuff that we spend a lot of time and money on.

Furthermore, the danger of all the churchy stuff is that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that Sunday morning worship and all the activity that we do on Sunday is what God desires.  We can deceive ourselves into thinking that if we come to a church worship service, then we have satisfied the desires of God.

Here’s the harsh truth.  We don’t need any of this to worship God.  None of it.  We don’t need a building, we don’t need all the stuff in the building, and we don’t even need a timeslot on Sundays for a worship gathering.  We can satisfy the worship desires of God without any of it.

But how?

By understanding what God desires worship to actually be.  The answer to Matt Casper’s question is “no, God did not tell us to do all this.”  We added it.  All this churchy stuff is not inherently wrong.  We can worship God in a church building, by singing songs, giving an offering, praying, sharing stories of how God is at work in our lives, by studying the Bible, by fellowshipping and encouraging one another.  All this stuff we do on Sundays, all of it, can be worshipful.  But we need to see that we added it.

So what is worship supposed to be?

First of all, prepare to worship every day. 

Paul once said that no matter what we do, even whether we’re just doing the mundane everyday stuff of life, like eating and drinking, do it all to the glory of God.

So how do you do that?  Try to have a daily practice of starting each day by offering thanksgiving to God.  Count your blessings.  Maybe when you first wake-up.

Then Read Scripture. When we read Scripture consistently, it results in more knowledge of God, and that results in more accurate worship.  In Scripture we learn to know him better, more accurately, more intelligently.

Second, see worship as happening 24/7.  How do you do that?

Saying “Your will be done”.  Remember when Jesus was about to be arrested and crucified?  He was praying in the Garden.  He knew how incredibly hard it was going to be.  He was headed toward a brutal beating and death.  He was in anguish about this as he prayed to God.  But he worshiped God anyway saying “Not my will, but yours be done.”

We might not like the situation we’re in.  Work might be horrible.  Parenting can be frustrating.  A relationship can be awful.  Money might be tight.  Worship God 24/7, right in the middle of the pain by saying “Not my will, but yours be done.”

By saying that, Jesus was essentially saying “God, I’m in the middle of the junk.  And I want to honor and glorify you even if the pain and crisis and struggle is not taken away from me.”  That’s some real, deal worship right there.  And when you worship like that, you are saying to God, “I want to obey you, Lord, even though it might get hard.”

This is very much in line with what Paul says Romans 12:1-2 – what is our spiritual act of worship – to offer our bodies as living sacrifices.

Say, “Lord, here I am at school.  I offer myself to you.  Here I am at work, I offer myself to serve you.  Here I am at home, I give myself to you.”

Thankfully, life is not always hard!  In fact, many times, praise God, he blesses us, and we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor, the joy of the Lord, the wonders of life on planet earth.  We can and should worship God during those times of blessing as well.  If you haven’t seen the movie Chariots of Fire, I urge you to check it out. It is the true story of Eric Liddell who was an Olympic miler. He was also a Christian.  He talks about how when he ran, he could feel God’s pleasure!  You can worship while you run, while you eat, while you enjoy vacation.

You can worship during the mundane as well.  Life is neither always awful, nor always joyful. Often life is filled with tasks that just have to get done.  Some you might dislike.  But you can also enjoy the mundane.  Mowing the lawn.  Raking leaves.  Worship while you work through these tasks too, like changing diapers, cleaning the toilet.  All of this can be done in worship, Paul said, done to the glory of God.

We especially spend a lot of time at work, don’t we.  So work as unto to the Lord.  Work hard.  Work without complaining.  Work with joy.  With creativity.

Practice the Presence of God.  Be in a conversation with God all day long, as much as you can.

Invite God to be right there with you.  Next to your desk.  Watching what you watch on your computer.

Third, learn the spiritual exercise of focused periods of worship as larger church family.

Let me share a private thought I have, one that I wrestle with. We have 130 people in our congregation.  But our Sunday morning attendance?  It has been around 95, 100, or 105 over the last few years.

What is going on?  25% of our congregation is not here, on average, every single week.  That is true in most churches.  Why is this happening?

But know this: there is an element of the Christian life, that can never be experienced by watching worship on TV or the internet, by listening to a podcast, or being alone in nature.

Worship is not just the songs.  Worship is the giving, the sharing, the encouraging, the prayer, the learning.  An extremely important part of worship is doing it together.  Getting the family together.  Do you need to change your heart attitude toward Sunday worship?  Do you need to gather with your church family more frequently?

Fourth we should practice the spiritual exercise of personal periods of focused worship.  This is when we take some time to focus on God, alone with him. This is when we put aside all we’re doing, get alone, without letting anyone know what we’re doing, and worship God alone.  This time alone with God can include song, Scripture, prayer.  It’s up to you.  When I read the Psalms, many of them were written out of an individual’s private, personal worship of God.  Include this as part of your regular prayer and Bible reading.

Start the day with personal worship.  Do not worry about other people who can do it better than you.  You don’t have to go to seminary or be a professional theologian to get alone and worship God.

Maybe just count your blessings. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 116:12-18. Allow the history of God’s blessings in your life to motivate you to praise and thank him, so that you can live out your day in a thankful, worshipful heart and mind.

We’re all different.  Some people might really be able to worship while driving, and for another person that might be next to impossible.

But remember that if worship doesn’t mean singing praise songs all day long, we can think about worshiping in other ways during the day.  Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice, Paul reminded us in Philippians.

 

In conclusion, like any of the spiritual disciplines, Worship can be hard work.  Think about it.  Worship is an act of retaining focus on God.  We can be a people of short-attention span.  It can be hard to stay focused on God.

But when we focus on God, something amazing happens.  People become like that which we focus on.  Focus on God and we will become like him.

Have an attitude that says “I want to learn to worship better.”  So maybe you need a trainer.  If you look at a person and realize “That person excels at worshiping God 24/7,” contact them as ask them to train you to be a better worshiper.

Why and how we should practice fasting as regularly as we pray or give

19 Jun

 

Image result for does fasting matter?

Is fasting an important teaching of Jesus?  Let’s be honest.  Rarely, exceedingly rarely, in our evangelical world do we hear about fasting.

Once scholarly source, Halley’s Handbook says this: “There are special occasions born out of extreme sorrow when fasting is appropriate, but generally speaking it is out of order.”

Generally speaking, it is out of order?  Really?

Jesus once spoke to his disciples about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6.  In verse 16 we read that he said, “When you fast…”

Look at the flow of the Jesus’ teaching, since the beginning of chapter 6.  Jesus says in verses 2 & 3 “When you give,” and our Christian culture generally accepts this teaching as something normal.  The result is that we practice giving weekly in worship and in other ways.  Then Jesus says in verses 5, 6, & 7, “When you pray” and our Christian culture also generally accepts this as normative, and we have prayer in worship, prayer meetings, and encourage private prayer as well.

Then Jesus says “When you fast” in verses 16 & 17, and we have to be honest and admit that this is NOT a common part of Christian culture and practice.  But look at what Jesus has done so far in this chapter: he categorizes these three practices equally.  Giving? Total normal and expected.  Prayer?  Totally normal and expected.  Fasting?  “Generally speaking out of order”?

Not so for Jesus.  He taught fasting as expected and normal.

In Old Testament Jewish culture, and later in the early church, there were a variety of special occasions when fasting took place: sadness, tragedy, demon possession, ordination for ministry.  Fasting was considered to be a regular practice.  Just as regular as going to worship services.

Sadly over time fasting has gone from a regular practice to an occasional practice.

So first and foremost, we need to see Jesus’ teaching as a corrective.  Fasting is to be practiced by all of his disciples regularly.

Having established the regularity of fasting, Jesus goes on to show us that fasting can be done the wrong way!

Fasting can be done the wrong way.

Jesus says in Matthew 6:16 that fasting can be done wrongly by people attempting to build their reputation.  Earlier in the sermon in Matthew 6, Jesus said the same thing about giving and prayer: our practice of spiritual disciplines can be abused.  He shows how the hypocrites made a mockery of fasting by making a production out of it.  He says they disfigure their faces.

My NIV Study Bible notes say that typical custom when fasting was to put ashes on your head to signify that you are fasting.

For many centuries and still to this day, ashes are a traditional way to start Lent.  Early Ash Wednesday morning, Christians receive a sign of the cross, written in ash, on their foreheads.  Then they wear it all day long to signify that they have begun the period of fasting lasting from that day until Easter.

Jesus is saying that some people in his day would go beyond that.  You might not notice that someone had ashes on their head. But you couldn’t miss it if someone’s face was “disfigured.”  That word “disfigure” is the same word that Jesus will use a few verses later in 19 & 20 to describe what moths do to clothing and was rust does to iron.  What these hypocrites were doing to their faces, then, was very noticeable.  And that is a problem.  They’re doing a good thing, fasting, but they’re doing it wrongly.  They’re using fasting to get a lot of attention.  To build up their reputation as being super-spiritual.  To get people to think they’re something special.  And Jesus says, if that’s what they want, then they got it.

They have their reward already.  His point is that their reward is a weak one.  It’s a powerless reward.

Is it possible that we might draw attention to ourselves when we practice spiritual disciplines?  Might our announcements on Facebook, about fasting or praying or giving, amount to the same kind of self-focused attention that Jesus decries?  If so, then the “likes” we receive are our reward.  We really want those “likes” on our posts.  They can make us feel important and appreciated.  But Jesus says that our practice of spiritual discipline should be aimed a much higher reward, that of being noticed by our father in heaven.  And the way to get him to reward us is to do our fasting in secret.

Jesus isn’t alone in showing how fasting can be done wrongly.  His teaching is very similar to another prominent teaching about fasting in the OT.  In Isaiah 58:1-7, God says fasting can be done wrongly by not changing us.

Years ago at Faith Church we showed a film called simply, 58.  It is now free to watch online.  I encourage you to do so.  It talks about how the teaching about fasting in Isaiah 58 can apply to our world, a world in which poverty, human trafficking and injustice are rampant.  We can practice fasting all we want, but what if we are never changed by it?  What if our fasting doesn’t make a difference to the injustice in our world.  In Isaiah 58, God calls this a false fast.  In Isaiah 58, just as in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, it seems the people doing the fasting are out to get the benefit for themselves alone.

When our church took a mission trip to Costa Rica in the summer of 2009, our group there read this chapter the day before we walked through a deeply impoverished slum neighborhood where a church we visited was located.  We decided that those who wanted to could voluntarily forego a meal, and we would donate the funds to the church.  Many also selected numerous personal items to give to the needy brothers and sisters in the church.  Some in our group were very hungry that day as we walked around that neighborhood.  But instead of eating lunch, we prayed as we walked the streets.  We had our eyes opened to poverty and gang violence and broken down homes where babies were sick.  That was a fast designed to benefit those in need.

Now read the rest of Isaiah 58, verses 8-14 to hear the results of the true kind of fasting.  Isn’t that astounding?  That is another reason why we practice the right kind of fasting.

But what else happens when we fast.  So far we’ve heard that God desires us to fast, and that he blesses and rewards those who fast.  That alone is wonderful.  But in Scripture we see there is even more to fasting.

Fasting is designed to: Help us concentrate on prayer.  Fasting adds intensity to prayer.  Jesus once gave his disciples a tip when they were struggling to cast out a demon.  They had seen Jesus do it many times and thought they would try.  But this demon wasn’t coming out.  Jesus said to his disciples, “That kind only comes out by prayer AND fasting.”  In the spiritual realm, fasting adds power.

Next, fasting is designed to: Heighten spiritual awareness.  Many times fasting was used before a special decision.  Acts 13 speaks of a time when the early church fasted.  As a result, God set apart Paul & Barnabas as missionaries.  Then the church fasted again before laying hands on them.  When my denomination, the EC Church, was selecting a new Bishop a few years ago, the leaders called for a special season of fasting before our Bishop was chosen.

Next, fasting is designed to:  Teach us dependence on God (rather than food).  Fasting flies in the face of American self-sufficiency.  Our famous slogan is: “Get R Done.”  We are independent.  We think we don’t need anyone, and fasting reminds us, YES WE DO.  Fasting takes us out of our comfort zone and reminds that we are indulgent, consumers, and it takes us to a place of dependence.

To illustrate our need for dependence on God, in a very weird statement in John 6, Jesus told us that he was to be “eaten”.  I’m serious.  Look it up.

I encourage you to read all of John 6 because the connections between Jesus and food are many and varied.  He carries on a testy conversation with the crowds around him that day, and eventually he says this: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Weird, huh?  I wish I could enter into their hearts and minds of the people listening that day.  I wish I could understand what this meant to them.  It is such a bizarre statement.  We know a bit of how they understood it because toward the end of the chapter, we read that even some of his disciples stopped following him.

So what was going on in this strange chapter?  Jesus said more than just “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  Look back at verse 48.  He talked about being the Bread of life from heaven.

There was in the history of Israel a story all the people listening to Jesus that day would have known very well.  The story of manna, which the people in the crowd refer to in verse 30.  It is a story hearkening back to the time when the people of Israel, in the book of Exodus, had left slavery in Egypt and wandering through the desert, heading toward the Promised Land of Canaan, they had very little means to get food.  So God provided miraculously for them every morning with flakes called manna.  The flakes would lay on the ground like snow, and then would collect enough for that day and use the manna to make bread.  Back here in John 6, Jesus says that he, not the manna, is “the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (6:48-50).  The practice of fasting goes together with this teaching about nourishing ourselves on the person of Jesus.  But how?

Author Dallas Willard, in his excellent book about spiritual disciplines, The Spirit of the Disciplines says that fasting “emphasizes the direct availability of God to nourish, sustain, and renew the soul.  It is a testimony to the reality of another world from which Jesus and his Father perpetually intermingle their lives with ours.  And the effects of our turning strongly to this true “food” will be obvious.”

So we see that fasting teaches us dependence on God.

Next, Fasting is designed to: break the chains of injustice

We have practiced communal fasting like this during lent with our sister church in Chicago, Kimball Avenue.  I have written about the Lenten Compact here.  Lent is an ancient Christian period of fasting, and the Lenten Compact is a group fast.  In this group fast, we agree with one another to participate in a fast, leading up to Easter, using the principles found in Isaiah 58, which I mentioned above.  One year was the Compact was designed to teach us about the strangers among us, and many of us fasted by giving extra time and resources to help refugees coming into Lancaster.  Another year the Compact was about violence, and we gave up things like violent movies, video games and the like.  These are fasts that heighten spiritual awareness, help us prayer, help us depend on God and break the chains of injustice.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.  How do we actually practice fasting on a regular basis?

There are all kinds of ways to fast.

Fasting is abstaining from anything that hinders prayer.  Abstaining from something that would allow more time for prayer.  Meal?  Football game on TV?  All TV for week?

Ideally fasts add more prayer and time with God.  But just fasting alone is important because it reminds us that we can have unhealthy dependencies on things in life, and the act of giving them up, just that alone, is a good thing.

Maybe you might try fasting food on Sundays before communion.  Start Saturday night after dinner, eating nothing until after communion the next day.  Take the extra time that you would have normally spent eating food, and spend more time in prayer confessing your sin and shortcoming, thus preparing you for communion.

Fast during Lent. Catholics have Friday Fish Fries because a traditional fast during Lent is giving up meat.  You have probably heard the phrase: “What are you giving up for Lent?”  This past Lent I gave up phone games.  Some people give up Facebook.  Some fast from TV.  When we fast during Lent, we are opening up space in our lives to ask God how we can depend on him more during that time.  We are seeking to break unhealthy dependency on lesser things.  We are seeking to prepare ourselves for the great celebration of Easter.

We should also practice fasting during times of spiritual depression, maybe to get away, go to a mountain and pray.  Twin Pines is a great spot for this.  When you go to camp or go on a retreat, do you realize that you are actually fasting many of the normal parts of life we are accustomed to?  What also happens at camp?  We spend extra time with God!  Should we be surprised, then, at how many people have amazing experiences with God at camp, or on retreats?  Fasting is part and parcel of that.

We also need to practice fasting on a regular basis like we practice weekly worship attendance which includes prayer and giving.  In this regard, many American Christians could learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.

I’ll never forget that when I visited our sister churches in Nepal in 2007.  I got to talk with their director, and he told us about how much their churches are growing and reaching people, even in the midst of persecution.  I had to ask him what their secret was.  How could they be growing so much, while we in the USA are seeing churches in decline?  You know what he said to me?  Our sister Churches in Nepal practice fasting regularly.

And then there was the time our missionaries in Brazil, Dave & Conce Roof, shared this amazing story:

A number of years ago, one of the elders Dave and Conce trained, and who was a dear friend of theirs, started outright lying in a number of the churches. He was causing division and strife, and it seemed he was intentionally trying to destroy the church from within.  Dave and Conce were devastated with seeing the destruction of the relationships in the church by this man they had invested so deeply in. The personal hurt and grief were painful.

They asked us to pray for God to give them wisdom as to how to handle the situation for God’s glory and the good of the body, and for the restoration of this dear brother.  How could they confront this man effectively and biblically, to bring healing?  Dave and Conce decided that this was definitely a time for fasting.  I don’t remember how long they fasted, but Dave said they were just finishing praying at the end of the fasting period, and there was a knock at their door. Dave literally got off his knees to answer.

It was the elder.  He was weeping.  God had spoken to him.  This man not only confessed to Dave and Conce and asked their forgiveness, but he also went church to church, and publicly before each and every congregation confessed everything and asked for forgiveness.  Some people were very suspicious, but over time the elder proved himself as truly changed.  As you can imagine, out of an incredibly difficult situation, the churches came together and were strengthened.  It unified them. Fasting can do mighty things in the spiritual realm.  Dave and Conce did not have to find a way to deal with the mess, God moved in the elder’s heart.

Some cautions are in order when thinking about fasting:

Be prepared for the battle inside when you fast.  Your mind and body will tell you that it is too hard.  “What are you going to do without that TV, food, phone, etc?  You really enjoy that.  You need that.”

What if fasting food is medically detrimental?  You should see your doctor before fasting food.  If the doctor says, “No,” you can fast other things.

Have you ever considered fasting?

Not for dieting purposes but for spiritual strengthening purposes.  In fasting we deny ourselves real food, in order to feast on the Bread of Life.  We do this by taking the time we would normally eat and use it to spend more time with Jesus.  The implication in this is dependence, trust.  We are saying to God that we will trust and depend on him to nourish us more than food.

Remember that we are both body and spirit.  What we do in the body affects the spirit and vice-versa.  In fasting, we are denying our body, so that we can strengthen our soul.  It may seem counterproductive.  Wouldn’t denying the body hurt the soul?  NO, because if we learn to depend on Jesus while denying the body, we can learn to control ourselves.  If I can deny my body food, then I will have greater spiritual strength to deny my body of lustful things as well.  I use my soul nourishment to control myself.  The desires of my soul to love and obey God become the controlling factor of my life rather than the desires of my flesh.

Remember that time that Jesus practiced a 40-day fast?  He was out in the desert by himself, spending time with God.  It must have been physically excruciating.  I have fasted for a day here and there, and it was hard.  One time I fasted food in college during soccer season, including a game day, and it felt really hard.  Jesus fasted 40 days.  Imagine what that did to his body!  Imagine how emaciated he would have been, how weak.

And yet, author Dallas Willard says something shocking: Jesus in the wilderness was actually at a place of spiritual strength. Jesus had just spent 40 straight days with God.  24/7.  Total dependence on God. Fasting, in a total surprise move, actually strengthens us.  When you consider that in fasting you are spending extra time depending on God, it makes sense that you are strengthened.

What can you give up to nourish yourself on Jesus?  All of us should try fasting food if it medically possible. But we could also deny ourselves of things like TV, Facebook, Video games, etc.

Remember to fast in secret:

  • Someone who gives up hobby for a month, spends that time in prayer, and tells no one about it!
  • Imagine a family that decides to skip a meal a week, and instead of that hour or two spent on meal preparation, eating and clean-up, they spend time in extra Bible devotion, prayer.  And they tell no one about it.

What are you going to do to practice fasting?   Wait expectantly, then watch God work.  Be excited about the connection you will feel to Jesus, the things you will learn and the things you will see.  When we willingly sacrifice to spend time with and get to know another person, it is good.  Love is received and felt.  The relationship grows. How much more should we be excited to deny ourselves and fast to get to know our God more and to have time to commune with him, to reconnect in a deeper way.

Remember that Christ said to us, “WHEN you fast….”  So, think about it…What can you fast this week?  This month?  What area or circumstance in your life needs extra prayer and focus right now?

And if you need help, get a trainer. Be a trainer.