Tag Archives: Jesus

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.

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!

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.

How the scariest Bible story helped us create our Faith Church Growth Process

22 May

Image result for scary bibleWhat do you think is the scariest, most haunting passage in the Bible?  Maybe something about demons or hell or something?  Could be.

For me it is Matthew 7:13-29, and especially verses 21-23 where Jesus says this:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

For me as a pastor, it haunts me.  Why?  Because there are people that assumed, and even were convinced, that they were in good standing with Jesus, that they were going to enter heaven.  But they are dead wrong.  He says to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.”

You know why that haunts me?  Those people were convinced they were good to go.  They were sure they were doing what Jesus wanted them to do.  They presented their evidence to Jesus.  In their minds, they were guaranteed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But they were totally wrong.  Jesus says “Nope, all that stuff you think is important is not important.”  Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day.”  We’re not talking about a small group.  We’re talking about “many.”  This relates to the previous part of the passage, verses 13-14 where Jesus says a large group of people are headed the wrong way.  Instead a small group finds the road that leads to life.

See how that could be freaky? This large group of people who are headed the wrong way are deceiving themselves by their evidence. Their so convinced the have the golden ticket to heaven, the people try to reply to Jesus that they should be allowed into heaven.  They even have evidence: “prophesying in his name, driving out demons in his name, and performing miracles.”  It seems convincing.  I can hardly imagine anyone, except a true disciple, doing these things.  In fact, I would say all those pieces of evidence seem to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through those people.

But there is a problem.  What do you notice about their evidence?  It’s all outward.  We look at them and on the outside they seem to be true followers.  But Jesus’ shocking response shows us that they are not.

Jesus’ response is what led to creating our new church logo. Take a look at the logo:

Each part of the logo symbolizes something.

There are four green squares, each representing a major focus of our church: Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Outreach.  The third box from the left is a darker green, indicating it is a special focus. We call the line down the middle the Matthew 7 line.  Finally, the cut-out in the middle two boxes draws an imaginary horizontal line across the middle vertical line, thus giving us the image of the cross.

Every part of the logo tells a story, and it is all based in Jesus’ shocking response to the people in Matthew 7:23.

We call this story our Growth Process, and that is why the squares are colored green, symbolizing growth.  But it is not about growing the church numerically.  That might happen, of course, but our Growth is about how we grow as disciples of Jesus and how we reach out so that more people can become disciples of Jesus.

At the end of our recent teaching series through 1st Timothy we looked at a couple of statements Paul made about eternal life, what he called “the life that is truly life.”  Paul tells Timothy to take hold of eternal life now.  Eternal life is not just something that happens after we die.  It is that for sure.  But it is also now.  Followers of Jesus take hold of the life that is truly life.  That true life, or that eternal life now, is the life that Jesus said those people in Matthew 7 did not have.  Those people in Matthew 7 looked good on the outside doing their religious duties, but they were missing something inside. They had not taken hold of the life that is truly life, they were not living eternal life now.

Our Growth Process story explains how to take hold of eternal life now.  We don’t want anyone in our church family to stand before God one day and hear him say “Away from, I never knew you.”  Instead we want everyone to have a growing relationship with Jesus.

Let’s take a look at the first square, then.  This square represents Worship.  It is first because most people start their connection with our church family by attending Sunday morning worship services.  Not everyone starts there, and of course they don’t have to start there, but most do.

Considering what it means to be a true follower of Jesus, can we say that a person is a true follower of Jesus if attending worship services is pretty much the sum total of their expression of faith?

No.  Very much like the people in Matthew 7:21-23, they might look worshipful on the outside, but Jesus calls his followers to so much more.

So we ask everyone to evaluate themselves.  Are you in that first square?  Are you primarily just a Sunday morning Christian?  If so, that is a wonderful start, and because we do not want you to hear Jesus say “Away from me, I never knew you” we encourage you to add Fellowship to your worship.

I use the word “add” very purposefully.  When you move from square to square in the Growth Process, you are not leaving the previous square behind.  You are adding something.  That is key.

So if you have determined that you are primarily in the Worship square, we encourage you to add the Fellowship square.  Adding fellowship means going deeper, building relationships.  It might be joining one of our Sunday School classes.  It might be joining a small group.  It might be serving on a serve team.  It might be inviting people over for dinner, hanging out, etc.  It is anything that helps you build deep relationships with and care for others in the church family.

Again I ask you to evaluate yourself.  Would you say that your expression of faith in Jesus is in the Worship box, or maybe you have added Fellowship to Worship?

You know what though?  Attending worship services is important, and adding deep fellowship relationships to that is even better, but I’m convinced a person can do those things, and maybe even do them a lot, but still have primarily an outward appearance of faith.  That kind of person can still hear Jesus say “Away from me, I never knew you.”

That’s why the next part of our Growth Process story is the most important.  Crossing the Matthew 7 line.  We don’t want anyone to hear Jesus “Away from me, I never knew you.”  Instead we want everyone to experience his eternal life now, to hear him say “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your rest.”  But how does that happen?

Jesus himself told us.  To cross over that Matthew 7 line, we need to learn to do what Jesus says in Matthew 7:21: those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven are the ones who do the will of his father in heaven.  What is the will of the father in Heaven?  Jesus would go on to tell his disciples precisely what he meant in Matthew 16:24, when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”  That kind of full life commitment to Jesus means a person has had a deep inner change.  There are no hidden secrets, nothing held back.

He goes on in Matthew 16 to say “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”  We need to add discipleship to worship and fellowship.  The Discipleship box is a darker green color because it is the most important one.  Jesus later said to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 that he gave them a mission, a mission of making disciples all over the whole world, teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.  That is what God desires for us: deep inward change, to be his disciples, giving our lives completely to him, and seeking to help others become Jesus’ disciples as well.

Now for the scary, but all-important question. Those people back in Matthew 7:21-23 assumed that they had crossed the Matthew 7 line, they assumed that they were true disciples, and they were wrong!  Those people looked at their outward expression of faith and assumed that was what God wanted. They were wrong. Is it possible that any of us might be wrong?

We would do well to assume that it is at least possible.  Therefore we have to talk about this.  Our Leadership Team cares so much about each and every person in our church family.  We don’t want anyone to assume that they are disciples of Jesus, only to be shocked one day to hear Jesus say, “Away from me, I never knew you.”  We leaders of the church would have utterly failed you if that happens.  That’s why we are placing so much weight on this discipleship square.  But there is one more square after that.

When a disciple of Jesus adds fellowship to worship, then crosses the Matthew 7 line, adding discipleship to worship and fellowship, something very obvious will happen. Go back to Matthew 7 and see verse 15.  That’s where Jesus talked about false prophets, comparing them to trees.  A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Only good trees can bear good fruit.  By your fruit you will know who is good or bad.  By your fruit you will know who has crossed over the Matthew 7 line into true discipleship.  True disciples will bear fruit.  Not raspberries or strawberries like in my garden, but the fruit of more people becoming disciples of Jesus.  That is why our logo has the final square.  A disciple is a worshipper, a fellowshipper, and finally a disciple reaches out.  It will be obvious.  Disciples make disciples.

And that is the story of our Growth Process.

That is the process that Jesus taught.  And that is the process that we want to see each and every one of you go through.

So how goes it with your soul?  Or, using the language of the Growth Process, what squares have you added to your life?  Have you crossed over the Matthew 7 line?  Are you a worshipper, a fellowshipper, a disciple, and reaching out?

How goes it with your soul? Our Leadership Team had a wonderful retreat last weekend, and we talked a lot about this Growth Process.  We feel the weight of leadership, and we feel convicted that our God-given role is to care for the spiritual growth of our entire church family.  To do that we are going to regularly start asking each of our church family a version of the question “How goes it with your soul?” because we care so much about everyone.  We don’t want anyone to hear Jesus say, “Away from me.”

So what will the Leadership Team do?  Each of them will be responsible to check in with people in the congregation.  They can not and will not try to force anything on anyone.

You could say in response that you don’t want to be involved in this.  We will honor that. But we encourage you to give yourself to this kind of important accountability.  I know “accountability” can sound like a scary word.  Maybe it sounds harsh.  I guarantee you that our leaders are not interested in being harsh or forcing anything on anyone. There was a unanimous agreement among our leaders that they simply want to care for each of you.

Also let me clarify something specific.  The leader is not there to be your mentor.  That kind of discipling/mentor relationship might happen between a leader and a person in the congregation, but that is not the purpose of the Growth Process.  Instead, the purpose is to have the leadership team intentionally supporting and encouraging people to be moving along the growth process.  If you agree together that you need a discipleship mentor, more than likely the Leadership Team member will direct you to another person in the congregation who can be that mentor for you, who can encourage your spiritual growth,

How many of you would want to be encouraged like that?

So we want everyone in our church family to begin a self-evaluation.  Where are you on the Growth Process?  Are you in the worship block?  Have you added the fellowship block?  Be very honest as you evaluate yourself.

Do that eval so that when the Leadership team contacts you, you’ll be ready to discuss this further.  Your self-eval will facilitate the conversation.  Remember that this will be confidential.

When you are in conversation with the Leadership Team, you may say to them that you want to move forward in the Growth Process, but you don’t know how to add the next block?  You might not know how to move from Worship to Fellowship.  You might not know how to cross the Matthew 7 line.  And that is where our Leadership Teams and Serve Teams are working hard to give you resources to help you.  For example, when you are conversing with the Leadership Team member, you might say that you are not sure you have crossed over into the Discipleship square, but you want to.  You want to be a true follower of Jesus.  That Leadership team member will be able to give you practical suggestions for next steps to take.  It might be getting you teamed up with a discipleship mentor.

We encourage you to take time to evaluate yourself, to take this Growth Process story in prayer to the Lord.  Ask him to give you wisdom and clarity about where you are on the process. Ask him to give you wisdom about how to move forward, growing as a disciple of Jesus.

If you have any questions, please contact anyone on the Leadership Team.

How you can experience eternal life before you die (and why waiting till after you die is foolish)

9 May

Image result for eternal life now

Do you feel like following Jesus is difficult?  I sometimes think that I must be doing it wrong, because following Jesus seems like it should be easy, but I can struggle with it.  Is it is struggle for you too?  And what do we do when following Jesus seems too difficult?  We so often flee pain, trouble, hardship, and we pursue ease, comfort, entertainment.

In our continuing series on 1st Timothy, we have come to chapter 6, verses 11-16, and Paul talks about what it is like to follow Jesus.  As you can imagine, Paul does not tell Timothy to flee the pain and pursue ease.  In verse 12 he says this comforting phrase to Timothy: “Fight the good fight of faith.”

Fight is a brutal word.  When we hear “fight”, we think of boxing.  We think of pushing and shoving and punching and maybe even yelling and pulling hair.  Maybe we think of a sword fight or a gun fight or a bull fight.

But the word Paul uses is not necessarily that kind of fight.   It is defined as “to strive to do something with great intensity and effort—‘to make every effort, to do everything possible, to strain oneself.’”[1]

Surely that definition could relate to a fight.  But it could also be a noncombatant striving, a struggling.  And it is intense.  It involves great effort. We generally don’t like to hear that.  How would you react to the following”

“If you sign up to be a volunteer on the booster club, it is going to be really hard!  You’ll have to struggle and put in a lot of work and effort.”

Or, “Please sign up for to be one of our children’s ministry teachers, it is super hard!  It will require a lot of you. You will have to be committed in time and energy.  It will be exhausting.”

Or “follow Jesus, be his disciple, die to yourself.”

Not a very compelling marketing scheme is it?

How many advertisers do you see that market their experience or product as being a really difficult, challenging, hard experience?  Barely any.  Maybe the military.  Many an elite school.

“Buy this mattress and it will be so awful you’ll have a horrible night’s sleep!”  They don’t do that.

Instead, when marketers advertise to us, they want to make their product as accessible as possible.  So they generally tell us how incredible and helpful and easy and fun and comfortable their product is.

Jesus apparently didn’t go to marketing school.  His call to discipleship is hard.  Paul’s charge to Timothy is hard.  “Fight the Good Fight.”  It is a fight.  Fights are hard.  They hurt.

There is one word in that phrase I haven’t mentioned yet: “Good.”

Paul says “Fight”, but it is a good fight.  It is a good fight of the faith.

What you are fighting for, what you are working for, what you are striving for makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  If the cause is just and good, you are much more likely to put in the long hours, to take a pay cut, to exercise, to practice, to make sacrifices.  Though it is hard, though it can feel like a fight, and though you might be exhausted, you can continue on because you know what you are fighting for is good.

Finishing a college degree might feel that way.

Raising children might feel that way.

Following an exercise or diet plan feels that way.

Paul is talking to a pastor, so yes, ministry can feel that way.

But all these are good things!  In fact, they are very good.  While they can feel like a fight at times, while they might inflict bodily damage on you just like a fight does, they are good, and remembering that they are good is so important.

If we are honest with ourselves, though, and I will be honest about ministry, there are moments of doubt.  We start to question, is it worth it?  How many of you have been there before, when you are involved in something hard?  You start to ask “Why did I get into this?”

I’ll never forget the marathons that I have run, having those thoughts, those questions pounding in my mind.  In the picture below, see the “FULL” back plate?

Image result for baltimore marathon back bib "full"

In the Baltimore Marathon, the race organizers asked us to pin that to the back of ours shirt because we were running simultaneously with half-marathoners for the last 10+ miles of the marathon.  I’m not sure why they asked us to do this.  Maybe it was simply so that runners on the course could know and encourage one another.  And they did.  I was very encouraged when some half-marathoners told me how impressed they were with the marathoners like me.

But at about mile 21 or 22, my body experienced a deep kind of exhaustion that I had never felt before.  In training, the most I ran at one time was 20 miles.  Now I was beyond that.  And I still had 4-5 miles to go.  I was cramping, scared something was wrong and this 18 week process was falling apart.  I entertained the possibility of quitting, of not finishing.  Worse yet, I still had hills to climb.  I started thinking to myself “Why in the world did I ever do this?  This was so foolish!  I’ll never do it again.”

The “full” sign really ought to say this: 

Have you ever doubted your abilities?  Have you felt foolish?

Maybe you have doubted our parenting abilities.  Maybe you wonder if you are smart enough to finish school.  We can doubt ourselves in the middle of the fight.

Have you ever doubted whether you can make it as a disciple of Jesus?  Do you ever feel like Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, feels like a fight?  Why does it feel like a fight?  What are you fighting against?  I think we followers of Jesus fight against at least three things.

First, we fight against ourselves.  We have free will.  When it comes to following Jesus, we freely chose to follow him.  Free will, though, means that we can freely choose the right thing, just as much as we can freely choose the wrong thing.  We have a tendency to make bad choices, think bad thoughts, and harbor bad attitudes don’t we?  Following the way of Jesus can feel like a fight because we ourselves have a free will struggle with our lack of self-control.

 

The second thing that can make discipleship to Jesus difficult is culture.  It is not like our culture has a goal of promoting discipleship to Jesus.  I think it is absolutely possible to live as gracious, compelling disciples of Jesus in our culture.  But it can be hard.  Are there elements of our culture that you find make it hard for you to follow Jesus?

The third thing that can make the good fight feel like a fight is opposition.  There is a very real enemy force in the world that would love to see us fail.  Satan.

Even though these three things work against, remember that it is a good fight!

What is your personal fight?  Here are some personal struggles that people often talk about:

Fear of what other people will say or do to you.  Mine is speaking the truth in love. Specifically the truth part.  I will often skip the truth part because I am afraid of offending. Perhaps the fight is the busyness in life.  Or is it that you feel loneliness, without much support? Our world certainly seems to pressure us to have material comforts. Are you hoping to climb the corporate ladder to the extent you are tempted to let other things go? Why?  To get more money, more prestige at work, or to get Power.  You can perhaps get all these things, but what will it cost you to get them ?  You’ll have to work long hours, and the resultant stress and anxiety will come at the cost of your personal time, sanity, and maybe your family or ministry time.

So Paul says to Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith.”  If we are to pursue righteousness and godliness, know that it could be hard.  But it is good!

In fact, Paul says next in verse 12 that it is not just a mediocre good.  Paul says it is a fight to take hold of eternal life.  It is that good!

He says that Timothy should, “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”

Wait a minute! Eternal life?  Is Paul talking about getting saved?  Isn’t Timothy already saved and going to heaven when he dies?   That’s how we talk about eternal life, right?  You have your present life now, then you die, and after you die, you will go on to eternal life in heaven.

But think about this passage with me a minute.  It would be very strange if Paul thought Timothy wasn’t yet saved, considering that Paul already installed him as pastor of the church at Ephesus.  It would be very strange if Paul thought Timothy was not going to have eternal life in heaven, as if Timothy had to now accept Jesus as his savior and become a follower of Jesus.  Paul would never have allowed Timothy pastor this church that Paul loved if he, Paul, wasn’t certain that Timothy was a true follower of Jesus who was going to have eternal life in heaven.

You what that means?  Whatever Paul is saying here, this cannot be a statement about eternal life in heaven after you die.

Paul is saying that Timothy should take hold of eternal life now.  One of my favorite writers on the Christian life, Dallas Willard, says this:

What Willard says fits perfectly with this passage.  How do we know this?  See the phrase in verse 12: “Take hold”?  It is an imperative tense, which means that Paul is commanding Timothy to do this right now.

Later on in verse 14 he even calls it a command.  What that means is that this command, “Take hold of eternal life”, is really important.  Paul is serious about this.  He is saying, “Make no mistake about it, you have to do this, Timothy.”

Live an eternal life right now.  Or as Willard put it, learn how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven now.

This is another passage to ask ourselves, “How am I doing in my life? What is important to me?  Am I fighting the good fight of the faith to take hold of eternal life now?”

We recently had the season of Lent.  Lent is the 7 weeks prior to Easter, and it is a season where people spiritually prepare themselves for Easter.  The spiritual preparation in Lent features fasting.  The question “what are you giving up for Lent?” refers to this.

I gave up phone games for Lent.  I can’t tell you the amount of time I wasted playing games on my phone.

How about you?  How are you wasting time?  Is what you are doing necessary?

It is good to first ask these questions between you and Lord.  Ask him to evaluate you.  Ask the Holy Spirit to evaluate you.  David in Psalm 139 says:

 

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. 

But you can compound the effectiveness of the evaluation by asking godly, wise people to evaluate you, to speak the truth to you.  One of one or in a small group, ask for accountability.

You know what the result of all this fighting the good fight, and taking hold of eternal life, will be?

We can live eternal life now!  That is so amazing to consider.

We so often feel desperation and frustration in life, and we think “I can’t wait for heaven and eternal life when all this pain will be gone.”  But in so doing, are we enabling ourselves to continue living in the muck of life?  Are we allowing ourselves to stay stuck in our bad habits, stuck in sin, feeling distant from God, feeling powerless to change?

Remember that Paul says “you can experience eternal life now!”  And actually he goes farther than that.  He commands it.  He is saying you must live eternal life now!  Take hold of it!

What an awesome privilege we have.  Following the way of Jesus might feel like a fight, but remember it is a good fight, because it means that we can take hold of eternal life right now.

I love the illustration at the top of the article because it shows how physical life and eternal life overlap.  We can and should experience eternal life now.  In fact, that is what God wants.  He wants the eternal life of his Kingdom to radically impact our lives, our world now, so that we and our world are being transformed now.

Paul is right, that might feel like a fight sometimes.  Anytime we go through transformation, it is usually hard.  But consider what transformation means: it is a good fight that means we are being changed to look and act more like Jesus.  It means that the list in verse 11, all those qualities of eternal life, are more and more are part of our lives.

So Paul finishes with a wonderful benediction in verse 13-16, charging Timothy to keep this command, and thus it is a charge to us as well, to flee evil, pursue Jesus, fight the good fight, take hold of eternal life now, until such time as Jesus returns or God takes us to be with him.

[1] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains 1996 : 662. Print.

Why does following the way of Jesus seem so difficult?

5 May

For those of you that are followers of Jesus, have you ever thought that that following the way of Jesus is difficult?  I think life itself can feel difficult.  But then add following Jesus, and there is another layer of effort, right?

Ever think thoughts like this?

I hear Jesus say “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” and sometimes I think “What?  Jesus, following your way of life is frustrating and complex!”

The process of life transformation that God wants to work in our lives is not always an easy one.  In fact it might be more accurate to say that it is often difficult.

And that can make us frustrated, can’t it?  Whether it is a habit we’re trying to change, a relationship we’re trying to mend, a ministry we are involved in or a sin that we’re trying to repent of, following the way of Jesus can feel heavy.

How many of you think “I just want a break!”?

I often wish following Jesus were easier.  In fact that raises a question in my mind.  Should following Jesus be easier than it seems?  If we think that following Jesus is hard, maybe the way we are following him is wrong?  Is it our fault that following Jesus can be difficult?  If you feel frustrated as a disciple of Jesus, what is going on?

This coming Sunday as our family of Faith Church gathers for worship, we continue our study through 1st Timothy and we’re going to read some comments that Paul gives to Timothy about following Jesus.

You can preview it at 1st Timothy 6:11-16.  Then we hope you’ll join us at 9:00am to hear more!