Tag Archives: Paul

An early church MMA match – Faith and Works: Paul versus James, Round 1

11 Oct

Image result for paul vs james

Did you know that the early church had an theology MMA match?  James vs. Paul.

Paul said Faith doesn’t work.

James said Faith does work.

Each was an important leader in the early church.  Paul its greatest missionary.  James the bishop of its biggest church (and brother of Jesus).  They really seem to conflict with each other.

I’ve mentioned that Ephesians 2:8-9 is a critical verse when considering Sola Gratia and Sola Fide.  There Paul puts these two Solas together, teaching that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works.

But right up against it, we have James 2 who says that faith without works is dead.

What gives?  Is faith just in our mind?  Just a set of beliefs that we think?  In other words is faith “not works”?

Or is faith without works dead?  Meaning, if faith is just a set of beliefs in our mind, is it an empty, worthless faith?

Is Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 a contradiction of James 2:14-26?

I think we need to look at Abraham a bit more.  Turn to Romans 4, and let’s take a deeper look at Paul’s description of Abraham’s faith.

Read verses 1-3.  Paul says Abraham believed, and God credited righteousness to him.

Paul explains this in verses 4-5.  Read this. We employees understand what Paul is saying.  How many of you are hourly employees?  You work one hour, you earned one hours pay.  How many of you are salaried?  You work and do your job, and you receive your pay.  But when you believe in God, you haven’t done any work, you haven’t earned anything, you deserve no pay, no grace.  And this is where grace comes in.  Though you don’t deserve it, God credits you his righteousness anyway.  That is grace, received by faith, not by works.

Paul talks about this a bit more, but jump down to verse 18.  Here he really gets to the heart of the matter.  He explains that though Abraham was old, as good as dead, “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith!”  He was fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised, and this is why it was credited to him as righteousness.  What is more, we can ALL have God’s righteousness credited to us the same way if we do what Paul says in verse 24-25.

“Believe in God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”

Now jump down to Romans 5, and let’s keep reading.  Read verses 1-11.  This is the message of salvation in Christ that is the by grace through faith.

Praise God!  Though we are sinners, God loves us, and through faith in Christ, we can be forgiven!

Remember what Paul said Ephesians 2:8-9? We are saved by grace through faith, not by works.  There Paul is describing faith at the moment of salvation.  We might say this is where a relationship with God starts.  But note what Paul says, it is not by works.  Jesus had to do the work.  We cannot earn our salvation.  We have to place our faith in what Jesus did through his life, death and resurrection.

But how do we place our faith in God?  Let’s review what we have learned so far.

We have seen the intellectual side of faith:

  1. I believe that God exists.
  2. I believe that I am separated from God because of my sin.
  3. I believe that God graciously forgives my sin through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection.

But there is also a physical side of Faith:

  1. God, I give my life to you, and I want to know you, to serve you, to live for you. You are now my leader, you show me how to live.
  2. And then you actually make life choices based on God’s pattern of life, most clearly displayed by Jesus in the Gospel. A life of faith is a life that says “Jesus, teach me how to live.”

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.

How my Google Home taught me about discontentment (and how to be more content)

3 May

My smart phone was due for an upgrade recently, so when an advertisement came via email offering the newest version of my phone; I took a look.  The advertisement on that email said that if I pre-purchased the new phone—it was due to be released in a few weeks—I could also get a Google Home and a new TV.  I was ON THAT.

We didn’t need these things.  We already have a TV.  Our life is fine without a Google home.  But they were free!!!!

My new phone eventually arrived in the mail, and I got it set up, but there was no Google Home and no TV.  I started questioning.  Was I too late in signing up?  Nah, couldn’t be…I signed up literally within hours of receiving the email.  Where was the TV or Google Home?  A feeling rose up inside me.  You know what that feeling was?  Discontent.

I called my cell carrier because I wanted to know what happened.  They told me that I had to go to a separate website and register my info, sales receipt, etc., and that’s how I could redeem the offer.   I found the website for the Google Home offer and got my info registered and approved!  Yes!

Then when the email came that my Google home was being shipped, you know what I did?  I tracked that sucker five times every day till it was on my front porch.

But there didn’t seem to be a way on the promotional website to redeem the TV.  That led to more discontent!  Why did this have to be so hard?  I started feeling grumpy.  What if I had never called them?  This was horrible customer service!

I called them again.  They told me to go back to the same website.  What?  I was already there.  There was no button to redeem the TV offer like there was for the Google Home.  Oh, I needed to read the fine print…the TV offer wouldn’t go live for another week.  You know what I did?  I set up an appointment in my calendar for the day the TV offer website would go live and made sure I wouldn’t forget.  I had to get my TV.

Discontentment.  The TV still isn’t here.

Is it possible to find contentment in life?  Will I feel better when the TV arrives?  Maybe I should call again to make sure it is on its way?  Have you experienced any similar feelings in your life?

We continued our Sunday morning series through 1st Timothy this past week, and in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 we learned in verse 6 that “godliness with contentment is great gain.”  That’s a short, but loaded phrase!

What is godliness?  What is contentment?  Let’s take a closer look.

While Paul refers to godliness in verse 6, he had already referred to it in verse 5, but very differently. Look at the end of verse 5.  He says that those false teachers (he called them arrogant ignorant false teachers) thought that godliness would lead to financial gain. Paul says in verse 5 that those false teachers are robbed of truth.  They think godliness will lead to financial gain, and they are simply wrong.

So what is this godliness he is talking about? In the original language this word is defined as “appropriate beliefs and devout practice of obligations relating to supernatural persons and powers—‘religion, piety.’[1]

We Christians tend to dislike the word “religion”.  We say that when it comes to our faith in Jesus, it is not a religion but a relationship.  Religion gives us the idea of buildings and set prayers and rules and something very fake and empty.  We say relationship is where it’s at.  Talking and walking with Jesus and having lives transformed, filled with the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, self-control.

So what is Paul talking about here?  A religion or a relationship?  Because he says in verse 5 that the false teachers think godliness leads to financial gain, that kind godliness must be a false religion, right?  The problem is he uses the very same word in verse 6 when he says that godliness with contentment is great gain.

Look at the definition of godliness again.  It actually encompasses both religion and relationship.  Religion and piety. Religion refers to outward acts of connecting with God, while piety is inward, relational, what we would call our heart and mind connecting with God.

That means godliness is a very well-rounded word here.  You can see why Paul would use it.  So he says godliness is not a means to financial gain.  We should not be using the outward or inward elements of our connection with God to try to enrich ourselves financially.  Using God for personal gain is the stuff of the arrogant and ignorant.

Instead, Paul says godliness with contentment is great gain.  What, then, is contentment?

Contentment is “The state of being content with one’s circumstances or lot in life.”

Have you heard that you are not supposed to use the word you are defining when creating a definition of that word.  So for example, “running is when you run.”  That might be true, but we have not learned much about running in that definition.  How about “running is the act of moving your legs rapidly, starting from a standing position then allowing your body to go in motion”?

So therefore, how do we define contentment?  It can’t just be “the state of being content”. We discussed this at sermon roundtable, and one person said that “contentment is to know that we are children of the King, and he will care for us.”   Additionally, we are content when we feel an inner sense of being okay with ourselves.  One author describes it like this:

“Self–sufficiency in a good sense, sufficiency with oneself as spoken of a satisfied mind or disposition[2].”

I like that.  A satisfied mind.

There is such a thing as holy discontent.  That is when something is not right, maybe an injustice is happening, and you feel discontent about it.  Holy discontent motivates you to right what is wrong.  Paul is not talking about that.

Paul is talking about being content in life.  Contentment is a satisfied mind.  I will admit that this one is a struggle for me.  I don’t always handle stress well.  The years of 2013-2015 had some difficult elements.  And in the late summer/fall of 2015 I started experiencing strong anxiety and even a couple panic attacks.  I was not content with life.  I did not have a satisfied mind.  I couldn’t sleep well, and I needed help. And I sought out that help.

For me discontent has manifested itself emotionally.  Discontentment might also be experiential.  What I mean is that we might be very tempted by the things of this world.   We live in a culture where we are trained to be discontent. Businesses want us to be discontent.  They create advertising so that we will feel discontent and buy their products, which they promise us will make us feel good.

 

Instant gratification trains us to only be happy if we get what we want immediately.  What is the trend of the week that we have to have in order to feel satisfied? The reality is that many of us think it is completely normal, this ongoing discontentment.  We feel that if we have things to hold on to, or if we have the right clothes, gadgets, homes, then we will feel fulfilled, normal.  As if that is just the way life is.

What does this say about us?  What is going on inside us that we can be deceived into believing that these things can provide us the satisfaction we deeply desire?  It is what some have called the “empty self”.  A God-shaped hole. That’s a big hole to fill.  No amount of stuff can fill that hole.

That’s why this principle is so very important!  Godliness with contentment is great gain.  Paul’s statement is a direct judgment to those false preachers who look to godliness to achieve financial gain.

But Paul says that true gain is only found in the combination of godliness with contentment. 1 Timothy 6:6 could be translated like this:

“Religion is a source of great wealth if it is accompanied by contentment with what one has.”[3]

If you are like me, struggling with discontent, then what I say next probably sound very normal. I have literally asked God for $1,000,000 as that would pay off our mortgage, pay off small debts, and get our kids set for college.  What this prayer request shows me is that I am not content, and I believe that removing money concerns from my life will make me feel better.

How many of us think more money will help us feel content?  Paul warns us about this in verses 7-9.  We think the things of this world will be the answer to our discontentment, but what we need is to learn to be content with just a few things like food and clothing.  Contentment comes, Paul says, when we learn to be satisfied with just a few things.  And that is a battle in our society.  But it is a battle followers of Jesus must fight.

Why?  Because discontent can lead to disaster.  It’s a trap, a temptation that is too powerful for most. Paul says, “Nope.  The love of money is a root of all evil.”  To be clear, money is not the problem.  Money is neutral.  It is the love of money that is the problem.

I can’t tell you how many times you will hear the phrase “money is the root of all evil.”  That is not what Paul says.  Look at verse 10.  It is the “love of money”.  It is a heart issue.  It is greed, avarice.  Who can spot what is wrong with this picture?

Image result for in greed we

“In greed we trust”.   It should be “In God we trust.”  But money is temptress and trap.

Money shows how discontent we are.  Like this guy:

When you love money, you are greedy, you are passionate about wanting more and more.  And that is why it so often leads to evil.  Theft, crime. Though we might not be in prison because we committed a financial crime, we might have done some other things.

Did you strive to report your taxes properly?

What about the issue of being demanding when you are not treated right or given the right deal on something you purchased.  Might greed be at the root of that desire?  We might say “Well, I wasn’t treated right, and I want justice.”  Justice is quite important, but is it possible that we can use justice to mask greed?

When we recently visited our son who completed Army Basic Training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, we arrived at our hotel to find they had given our party of four a room that slept two.  There were literally no rooms left in the hotel.  None in their sister hotel.  None in two other hotels nearby.  It was 1:30am.  I slept on the floor.  The next day, thankfully, a room opened up in their sister hotel next door and we moved over.  But that day I spent some time talking with management about this.  My internal question was how far should we go in getting a refund for the inconvenience?  I had the confirmation email which clearly stated the type of room we paid for.  The hotel was wrong.  They gave our room to someone else, and they took the blame for their mistake.  Were we not due a refund or discount for our troubles?

Or maybe that sense of what was due us was motivated at least in part by greed? Maybe “godliness with contentment” could help us to view this situation from another angle?  Maybe we could take the hit and show grace?  Just like Jesus did for us?  At what point do I just allow myself to be content and avoid the nagging feeling of greed that wants more and more.  As Paul said in Corinthians “why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be faulted?”

So what does it mean to live a content life?

Evaluate your life.  Get someone who will provide a real honest assessment to evaluate you.

Seek examples to emulate.  Who is an easily recognizable person or example of someone who demonstrates contentment in life?

Contentment is possible.  Not in money.  Not in material things.  But only in Christ.  So pursue godliness.

 

[1] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains 1996 : 530. Print.
[2] Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament 2000 : n. pag. Print.
[3] Louw & Nida, 298.

What if Christianity’s massive investment in worship is wrong?

17 Feb

Image result for wrong worship

Is it possible that Christianity’s massive investment in worship is misguided?

Think about it.  We invest a lot of time, money and energy into worship, don’t we?

One morning or evening each week is devoted to it.  Our society is very much oriented toward a weekly schedule that keeps Sunday mornings free.

We also build buildings for worship.  We don’t have to.  We could worship without them.  But it is also not wrong to build buildings.  The simple matter of fact, though, is we build buildings, lots of them.  I don’t know the specific number, but I have heard that there are about 800 churches in Lancaster County, and most of them have buildings and property.  Some are massive, some tiny, and many sizes in between.  Drive around Lancaster County and start tallying up the church buildings and you lose count.  Think about that with me for a minute.  What would you estimate the average value of a church building and property to be?  Now multiply that by 800.  Then add the years upon years of furnishings, utilities and upkeep.  That’s a lot of money, isn’t it?  I wouldn’t doubt the figure is in the billions of dollars.

Then think about the other costs of worship.  Staff is the big one.  That’s me.  The pastors.  Then there are worship leaders and the many other staff.  Multiply that by 800 churches, and here in Lancaster we spend a lot of money on hiring people to be involved in worship and worship programs, don’t we?

Next think of the time involved.  Not just the 1.5 to 3 hours that you spend attending worship service and classes.  Also add in the prep time, the volunteer time.  Multiply that by 52 weeks every year.  The result is a boatload of hours.

Put it all together and what do you have?  We Christians make a massive investment in worship, don’t we?  Why do we do this?  The standard answer, and it is a good one, is that we give so much because God is worthy of our worship.

Not so fast, though.  God is worthy, no question about it, but does that mean we can worship him however we want?

Because we invest so much into worship, it is incumbent on us to evaluate our investment, right?  When you give time and energy and money to something, you are being responsible if you evaluate how that time, energy and money is being used, right?

How many of you would want to stand before God in heaven and hear him say “Your worship was seriously wrong.  All that time and energy and money you spent on Sunday mornings in your buildings with your professional staff and worship services with songs and sermons and classes…I didn’t want you to do that!”  You would want to know that,  right?  And you’d want to know what God wants sooner rather than later, wouldn’t you?  I would.  In fact, even if he said “You were on the right track, you were mostly right, about 75% correct in your investment in worship, but here are some things I wish you had done differently…” I would want to know that too!  I would want to know even if we only got 5% wrong.  Even if it was 1%.  But how can we know?

When I meet people who don’t know much about Faith Church, they often have a series of questions they ask me:  How big is the church?  Is it inter-generational?  And what kind of worship do you have?  When they ask about worship, they’re not wondering about my sermons.  They are wondering about the music!  Is it traditional, contemporary, blended?  We had a guest musician at our church a year ago or so for a special service, and he asked me that question: “What kind of worship do you have?”  When I answered “experimental”, you should have seen the wrinkled up, confused look on his face.  It was great!   More recently I have changed my answer a bit.  I still describe our worship as experimental, but I try to explain it a bit because people don’t know what I mean.

So what do I mean by “experimental”?  People from Faith Church reading this might actually be confused by what I’m saying here because most Sundays we have a typical standby kind of worship.  If you’ve been with us for a couple months, you know what I mean:  welcome & announcements, focusing prayer, worship songs (mixture of old and new), sharing time, prayer, dismissal of kids, sermon, closing song, fellowship time.  Doesn’t sound very experimental does it?

But I say that we are experimental because about once per quarter we try to do something completely different.  Silent Sunday, Church has left the building, Worship in the park, worship in the Fellowship Hall around tables, artistic Sunday, change up the order of worship, change the method of communion, etc.  It has been wonderful having the variety!

Why do we experiment with worship?

We experiment because we don’t ever want to give ourselves the idea that we have worship figured out.  We always want to have the posture of learners when it comes to worship.  There is no one right way to worship. We can learn from many different Christian traditions and new and upcoming styles about worship. Silent Sunday, for example, was informed by Quaker and Taize worship.  We want to keep learning.

Why am I saying all this about experimental worship and being learners about worship?  Because on our next two Sundays in our study of 1st Timothy, Paul teaches Timothy about worship.  This is perfect for people who see themselves as learners of worship.  Learners of worship don’t come to worship expecting to worship how they like to worship. Instead learners of worship come to worship services expecting God to teach them.  That’s you and me. We are learners of worship.  Disciples are learners from Jesus.  And when we come to worship we come with hearts and minds that pray “Lord teach me today.  Teach me how to worship you.  Teach me what you want to teach me.”

Learners come to worship with teachable hearts and minds!  And for the next two Sundays we are going to learn from Paul how to worship.  Paul wanted Timothy to teach the church in Ephesus about worship. You are welcome to join us at Faith Church at 9am on Sunday if you want to learn about worship too!  To prepare you might consider reading 1st Timothy 2.  Hope to see you there!

How God feels about sinners…even the worst ones!

31 Jan

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Can God save the worst sinner ever?  Would he want to?  You and I might not feel like the worst sinners ever in history, but we can often feel pretty guilty about our bad choices.  In the middle of the guilt, we wonder, “How does God feel about us when we have screwed up?”

As I mentioned last week in the intro post, our continuing study in 1st Timothy brings us to chapter 1, verses 12-17.  In that section, the writer of this letter, Paul, declares that he was the worst sinner.  He calls himself a blasphemer and persecutor, a man who arrogantly insulted God.  If you want, you can read all about it in Acts 7-9.  Paul is not exaggerating.  He was part of the same religious establishment that opposed Jesus, and now a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was leading the charge to round up Jesus’ followers and crush their movement.

Why wouldn’t God just eliminate Paul?  Instead, Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 1:12-17 that God considered Paul faithful.  Faithful?  That seems incredulous.  How could God see Paul as faithful when Paul was on the brink of destroying God’s new movement to save the world?  The reason is that while Paul had not placed his faith in Jesus, Paul was very passionate about what he considered to be the truth about God, the Old Covenant that God had with Israel.  Therefore Paul considered the Christians a cult, a threat to the truth.

So Jesus stepped in, as you can read in Acts 9, when Paul was headed to imprison more Christians.  Literally breaking out of heaven in a bright light, Jesus revealed himself to Paul, totally changing the course of Paul’s life.   In 1 Timothy 1, at the end of verse 13 Paul looks back on that momentous event when God changed his life, and Paul says he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief.

The word here that Paul uses to describe how much grace and faith and love God gave him is quite vivid.  The NIV uses the image of pouring, but I would argue that there is a better image.  The word is actually a compound word “over fill”.  It is the image of a cup into which a liquid is poured not just to the top, not to the brim, but overflowing.  The liquid pours out over the edges.  The container cannot contain that much!

I love that.  That’s how much grace and faith and love God gives to us!  More than we can handle.  You are the container, and God is filling you with his grace and faith and love, and he is giving you more of his goodness that you can hold!

That’s how amazing God is.

Paul continues talking about this in verse 15 where he refers to the mission of Jesus to save sinners.  Paul was the worst. Paul is using himself as an illustration of how far-reaching God’s grace is.  He was the worst of sinners.  Everyone in the early church knew this.

He was ISIS.  He was their worst enemy.  And how do you think they felt when they heard that their worst enemy supposedly changed into their strongest advocate?

No way, buddy!

How would you feel if a top ISIS leader started saying that he was now a Christian?

No one would believe him!  That’s what Paul was going through.

But the change in Paul was true, and in due time, Paul showed them that it was true.  We see clearly in Paul that Jesus has the power to save anyone and to change anyone’s life.  Even the worst of sinners.

I hear Paul saying in this passage that he was the worst of sinners, and I think “I don’t know if you were actually the worst of sinners even in your own time, Paul, but I can pretty much guarantee that with all the horrible stuff that has happened in the last 2000 years since you wrote this, you aren’t even close to the worst.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it doesn’t matter who is actually the worst sinner, or whether or not Paul was the worst sinner.  What matters is that Paul saw himself as the worst sinner.

And when you can be honest about how sinful you really are, then you start to see how amazing God’s grace and mercy are.  Christian pastor and author Tim Keller has said “We only fully grasp the gospel when we understand, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know.”

I’ll never forget a sight I saw at EC National Conference a few years ago.  We were all singing praise to God, a normal part of our sessions of conference.  One particular song emphasized this theme of brokenness before God, of taking our sin seriously, and a man in the crowd, without any prodding from the worship leader, got up from his seat, walked down the aisle, and got down on his knees in front of the whole assembly.  He was clearly broken up inside about his sin.

Do we let ourselves off the hook?  I wonder if we haven’t fully grasped the Gospel because we haven’t taken our sin seriously?

And if you’re thinking “Man, Joel…this sin talk dire stuff.  Bleak.”  Get ready.  What comes next is a game changer.

In verse 16, Paul says something that many people think is crazy: God showed mercy to the worst of sinners!

God shows mercy to sinners, even to really bad sinners.  And more than that, why would God do this?  Paul says that God showed mercy to him so that Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

God had unlimited patience for sinners.  That is crazy talk.  Unlimited?  On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no patience and 10 is unlimited patience, where do you rank yourself?

God is a 10.  He is the only one who is a 10.

When you realize how God is so merciful, so patient with you, even when you feel like the worst of sinners, what do you do?  You do what Paul did!

In verse 17 he bursts forth in praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever!”  Praise Him!  Paul is praising him as he thinks about how amazing God was to him.

This is who God is!  Paul is looking at the depths of evil that was in his heart and how God saved him.  And he bursts with praise.

Paul uses himself as an example of why we should praise the Lord.  But all of us have stories.

If God can save the worst of sinners, of course he can save the rest of us.

Paul is also an example for us in that he is sharing his story.  Likewise we should share our stories of God’s intervention in our lives.  And I’m not talking about only super dramatic stories.  Stories of God’s work in the non-dramatic moments are also amazing.  It is just as astounding for God to save us in a non-dramatic way as it is for God to break out of the clouds and save a Christian-killer like Paul.

All of us should have the words of praise found in verse 17 flooding our hearts and minds!

So if you grew up in a Christian family and you always believed in Jesus, that is just as awesome as if you didn’t grow up in a Christian family and have a more intense conversion experience.

Christians, be reminded of the grace, love and patience of God in saving you, pour out in praise, and tell the story!

Self-enslavement? To everyone?…A good thing?

27 Jun

After a few weeks off from studying for a new sermon, I am back at it, and I have to admit I’m a bit nervous.  I almost always look forward to preaching, something that has grown on me over the years.  But there are still a few Sundays that I don’t look forward to it.  There was this one, for example, where the material was controversial, and I wondered if I was going to tick off people in the church. (Thankfully, in that case, I think it went very well, but, boy, was I sweating!)  As I look down the road in the 1st Corinthians series, I see a few more of those coming.  More on that in mid-July when we start a long sub-series through 1st Corinthians chapters 11-14 all about worship.

This week though, there is a different reason for my anxiety.  Once again it is the material, though not that it is controversial.  Instead 1st Corinthians 9:19-27, the passage I’ll be preaching, is intense.  Take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

I like the passage a lot, especially because it talks about running, and running has been a exciting part of my life for the past 5 years.  Paul talks about running to get a prize and the necessary training that goes into getting in shape.  I started training for the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon which is taking place on my 40th birthday, September 6th.  So I get the training part.  In fact, as others of you have found out, there is a joy to be found in training.

But Paul has some other things to say that weird me out a bit.  These are the intense parts that I referred to already.  As the title of the post indicates, Paul says that one of the things he did was to practice self-enslavement to everyone.  Does anyone else read that and think, “Really?”  What does that mean?  Self-enslavement.  And why to everyone?  Isn’t he going a bit far?

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In that passage Paul gives us a peak into his heart and mind.  We will be tempted to say “Really?”, doubting him, or rationalize in other ways like “Well, that’s nice…for Paul! But not for me. He was special.”  That might be fine for him, but not for the rest of us.  As you prepare for worship on Sunday, I urge you to read this passage and ask the Lord to help you avoid that kind of rationalization.  Ask him to help you receive his word.  Believe me, I’m praying that right along with you.  This passage has me quaking a bit because it describes a passion for Christ and his kingdom that puts mine to shame.  I will be preaching not from a position of saying “follow me” like Paul could say.  Instead I’ll be preaching this sermon to myself.

One of the fears I have in a sermon like this is that it will scare people off.  Paul sets the bar high.  But he also talks about blessings.  Is it possible that setting the bar high will lead to blessings?  What I mean is this, is it possible that a life of self-enslavement to everyone might actually be better than we think?  Join us on Sunday and we’ll find out.

How do you write a letter to a church in a hyper-sexualized culture?

3 Jan

How do you start a letter to a church that is out of control?  What would you say?

Imagine you’re a leader of a group of churches.  Maybe a denominational CEO, a bishop, a district superintendent, a conference minister.  You are responsible for the spiritual health and vitality of the many pastors and congregations under your care.  To stay in touch, you visit them once each year or so.

You start hearing some strange stories from one particular church.  Apparently their worship services are wild.  People are interrupting one another, pushing each other out of the limelight.  And at communion, one group is gobbling up the food and drink, leaving nothing but crumbs for the rest.  But it’s not just wacky worship.  You hear stories of incest, inappropriate sexuality, and people suing one another in court. There are stories that some of them might be saying that your central teaching is being denied.  Resurrection is impossible, they say.  There are factions in the church.  You love these people, but you have to admit, they’re a mess.

You know you need to write them a letter.  Well, better yet, you know you need to visit, but a letter will get there quicker.  So you get a scribe and begin.

But you stall, not sure what to say.  These people are dealing with intense pressures.  They live in a town where the pressure to conform is great.  They number maybe 25-50 in a town of half a million or so. It’s a very religious town, with multiple temples, but it is an ungodly place, where the religion is basically sexual expression.  No wonder this church is struggling.  Following Jesus is so different from their culture, especially in the area of sexuality.  How can you help them without just saying “Stop it, you idiots?”

What would you say?  How would you start your letter to actually get their attention, so they would take you seriously?

That’s our task this Sunday.  We start a series studying Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth.  It was a tough place to be a new church, but the descriptions of Corinth are eerily similar to American culture in our day.  With all the twerking, sexting, porn at our fingertips, and just plain old regular TV, it is hard to be a faithful follower of Jesus in our day.  Especially in the area of sexuality.  As a father of teenagers I think about what to tell them, how to lead them.  I want them to be pure, but I admit I hardly know what to say sometimes.  “Just be pure!”  I just want them to get it, to buy into it, to see the emptiness of our hyper-sexualized culture easily.  But it isn’t easy.   It is deceptively difficult.  I don’t have it all figured out, but I see Paul begin his letter to the Corinthian church is a very thought-provoking way.  We’ll take a look at his intro 1 Cor 1:1-3 to see how he starts his letter to a very troubled church.