My Declaration of Dependence

By original: w:Second Continental Congress; reproduction: William Stone – numerous, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=621811

The English colonies in America began with land grants made by James I to the London and Plymouth Companies, and developed as business entities managed by shareholders or proprietors in the pursuit of financial gain. Georgia, the last of the thirteen colonies to be chartered, proved to be the exception. Its founder envisioned it as a place where debtors and the “worthy poor” could flourish, though the Crown was more interested in its value as a buffer between Spanish-held territory to the south and its income-producing colonies to the north.

In the beginning, the American companies – whether the Massachusetts Bay Company or the Virginia Company or Lord Baltimore’s Maryland province – were in competition with each other. But as the decades (and centuries in the case of Virginia and the New England colonies) rolled by, their people increasingly recognized their common interests and bemoaned their common injuries.

When representatives of the thirteen colonies assembled in congress on July 4, 1776, they issued a very solemn Declaration of Independence from the British Crown. But before declaring the colonies to be “free and independent states,” the signers emphasized that they were in unanimous agreement as the “thirteen united States of America.”

The representatives recognized their own limitations. They understood that they could not successfully declare their independence from Great Britain without acknowledging their dependence upon one another. Independence from a greater power requires dependence upon another power, whether the collective power of individual states or the ultimate power of a divine being. The founding fathers acknowledged their dependence upon both.

How could Virginia, Pennsylvania or New Jersey stand alone in their independence from Great Britain? They could not. They could only achieve independence through a right and proper dependence upon one another.

This principle that independence is gained through dependence proves true in a variety of contexts. The addict’s independence from the substance or behavior that controls him requires dependence upon an accountability partner or support group and on divine assistance. Independence from an abusive spouse or parent will require dependence upon caring friends and counselors. Independence from mom and dad requires dependence on employers and hard work.

There is no such thing as absolute independence among finite, and therefore dependent, beings. Independence is, and must always be, relative. The man who fancies himself completely self-reliant only fools himself. He is utterly incapable of making his own heart beat or extending his life one minute longer. To such a man St. Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

This is something that is hard for us, schooled as we are in rugged individualism, to remember. We see it across the spectrum of American life. Republicans and Democrats think that they can govern independently of one another. The one-percenters think they can do without the rest of the country, and the rest of the country thinks it can do without them. Racial and ethnic majorities and minorities alike flout one another.

While independence from a hostile power may require dependence upon a friendly one, it is still necessary to use caution in choosing the “friendly power” upon which we rely. Unless it frees us (individually and as a nation) to fulfill our potential, we have chosen the wrong power. That freedom is one God routinely grants and I, for one, gladly declare my dependence on him.

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The Bedrock Upon Which Racism Is Built

The author, activist, and preacher Jim Wallis has called racism America’s original sin. Racism is, indeed, an ancient and ugly sin. It is a sin that is even more heinous when it occurs in the Church of Jesus Christ in whom there “is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Yet I think Wallis is wrong to identify racism as America’s original sin. There is an even older one. It was here before our “more perfect” – though never perfected – union was formed. There is greed.

When I was in elementary school (and, later, junior high and high school), I liked history classes. History texts and history teachers told stories, interesting stories that affirmed my place in the world as an American. Before I left elementary school, I understood that our forefathers and foremothers heroically left their homes and journeyed here to gain their religious freedom.

While this is true it is not the entire truth. Whatever the reason our particular forefathers and foremothers came here, many of them were able to come because their presence in the new world proved economically advantageous to the Crown and to the leading business interests of England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Mercantilism, the reigning economic policy in the western world for three centuries, proposed that wealth (and therefore security) depended on increasing exports and decreasing imports. A nation could only achieve economic security by discovering and claiming new lands and developing their resources.

It was also necessary to people these new lands. Resources were of no advantage if they remained in the ground. Trees must be cut, precious minerals mined, coffees and teas and, later, tobaccos, harvested. This required workers. Lots of workers.

The English colonies in America were founded with land grants made by James I to the London and Plymouth Companies. These were developed as business entities, owned by shareholders, and managed for financial profit. The new land held out the promise of staggering profits to a tiny group of investors.

Georgia, the last of the thirteen British colonies to be chartered, proved to be the exception. Its founder envisioned it as a place where debtors and the “worthy poor” could flourish. Historians, however, suggest that the Crown was more interested in Georgia’s value as a buffer between Spanish-held territory to the south and the income-producing colonies to the north.

The slave trade, and the despicable injustices that went along with it, occurred in the context of international business interests pursuing profits with the support of governments that were maneuvering for economic advantage. Knowing this, one might think that America’s original sin was greed.

However, greed itself is not an original sin. It feeds off insecurity and fear. The seventeenth century’s frenzied struggle for national supremacy was based, at least in part, on fear: fear the Catholics would win – or the Protestants. Fear the French would take the Rhineland, the Spanish would dominate the seas, and the English would wrest control of Africa’s west coast from the Dutch. When fear reigns, people are treated as tools of acquisition and enough is never enough.

Even after descending through the strata of racism, greed, and fear, we have not yet reached the bedrock of our sin. Fear, which has plagued humanity through all its generations, was born of people’s alienation from each other and, more fundamentally, from God. The original sin was not racism or greed but humanity’s rejection of its creator.

St. Paul wrote about this in his magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans. “For although they knew God,” he wrote, “they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile…” This was not only a step away from God but away from each other. What follows in Paul’s letter are the ways humans degraded each other and dishonored themselves.

America is now paying attention to racism. Good. May healing come out of it. But pulling down statues and defacing images will not bring the God-dishonoring, human-devaluing sin of racism to an end. Only reconciliation with the reconciling God, which leads to love and respect for one another, can accomplish that.

First published by Gatehouse Media.

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It Is Time for a New Creation

The Bible claims that there is a fundamental reality to people that is not immediately apparent. The truest thing about any person is not something that can be seen. There is a self behind the public self. Of course no one would deny this, but there is also a self behind the private self.

We only catch glimpses of our true self but God sees it plainly. It emerges, inevitably and unavoidably from the heart, the core of the human being. On the Day of Judgment what a person really is – the self behind the self – will finally and undeniably be revealed.

Until then, we judge people by their education, wardrobe, and even their “cool quotient.” Or we judge them by their theology, church attendance, or other criteria. We assume we know them; sometimes that we know them well. But we are unable to see what the Bible calls the “inner person” (literally, “the inside man”). Only God sees that.

St. Paul had to learn that lesson. As a Pharisee, he had judged Jesus by standards like education, accent, and “cool quotient.” He later admitted that his judgment of people, even Christ, was based on “a worldly point of view”; that is, on appearances. But Paul learned how unreliable such a gauge is.

He stopped judging people by appearances. He had made that mistake with Jesus, but he would make it no more. Something had forever changed the way he looked at people.

That something, he said, was the astonishing love of God, made visible in Christ. Paul had come to believe that the central event of human history, the hinge on which the whole world turns, is the death and resurrection of Jesus. He regarded it as the most important thing that ever happened to the world and, whether one realizes it or not, to every one of us.

Paul had thought deeply about this and had come to conclude that through the advent of Jesus God was changing the very nature of reality. He saw Christ’s death and resurrection as tantamount to (and prophetic of) the death and resurrection of the cosmos. This truth broke on him like the sun breaks over the horizon at dawn. In its light everything else took shape.

Paul once sized people up on the basis of their orthodoxy, their morality, and their stand on the finer points of religious law. All that changed when he recognized Jesus as Lord and committed himself to him. Even orthodox doctrine took a back seat to a person’s commitment to the Lord of Creation.

In this new light, Paul could see that Jesus was more than Israel’s messiah. He was the world’s transformer. As creation had once come about through his instrumentality, a glorious new creation, promised in the Old Testament, would once again come through him.

Scientists say that the universe came into being in an instant from a single point, sometimes referred to as a singularity. The Bible, however, tells us that the universe came into being from a single person. Christ is the singularity out of which the first creation sprang and from which a new creation is emerging. He is the door between the spiritual and the material, the eternal and the temporal. And the door is open.

Though the new creation has not yet appeared, the apostle found harbingers of its arrival in the people Christ is making new. Whenever anyone enters into union with Christ through faith, it may truly be said that they are a new creation. In Paul’s words: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”

Paul’s own Greek comes in a kind of joyous staccato: “So, if anyone in Christ – new creation!” One can imagine him pointing with delight to people whose lives were being transformed through union with Christ. Each time he saw someone from the Jesus community forgiving an offender, loving a stranger, standing up for the oppressed, or sacrificing for the needy, he saw a harbinger of the just and beautiful creation that is coming.

I wonder what he would see if he looked at us.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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The Spiritual Workout (If it’s easy, you’re not doing it right)

St. Paul tells us to “Continue to work out your salvation…” The NIV’s translation attempts to express the ongoing nature of the present tense of the verb. This work is not something we do once and are done. The salvation inside us is so big, it will take a lifetime to work out. There is so much potential in God’s salvation that we cannot unpack it in a few years or even in a lifetime – it will take an eternity.

If we are expending no energy in our salvation workout – if we never break a sweat, never feel a doubt, never strain under temptation – we’re not doing it right. It’s like spending an hour at the gym. If we never break a sweat, never strain against the weights or get our heart rate into triple digits, we’re not doing it right. Paul did not say “Talk out your salvation.” He said, “Work out” (or it could simply be translated work) your salvation.”

Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

The Greek root in this word is erg, which means “work.” We get words like “energy” and “ergonomics” (and even “allergy”) from this root. In the church we often hear that salvation is “by grace” and “not by works,” and that is solid biblical truth. But we need to make sure we are not drawing the wrong conclusion from that truth. We can mistakenly assume that, because salvation does not result from our work, it must not necessitate our work. That is a serious error. Salvation does not result from work but it does result in work. As Philip Melancthon put it, “We are saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.” Faith always walks in company with its dear friend “work.”

The wall of separation that has been built between salvation and work is founded on a misunderstanding (or at least a too limited understanding) of what biblical salvation is. We misunderstand salvation when we think of it only in future terms – of getting into heaven when we die. If that is all there is to salvation, there is certainly no place for work, because we all know that we cannot work our way into heaven.

But salvation has a past and a present dimension, as well as a future one. Salvation is not just an event in our future, as important as that is. (And I hope it is in our future – but that is only the case if we have received eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.) Salvation is more than getting into heaven when we die.

Salvation has a past dimension: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). That’s past tense and refers to what God has done through Christ on the cross. But there is also a present tense: “You are receiving the goal of your faith, even the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:9). That’s present tense, something we are receiving now. Paul wrote: “…the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:18). “Us who are being saved” – that is present tense salvation; something that is happening now.

So salvation is out of eternal death, but it is also into a new kind of life. Too often we miss that. If we make salvation something that happens only at death, we effectively disassociate it from anything that happens in life, leaving it irrelevant. We retain an important truth – we cannot accomplish salvation by doing good works – but we lose an important truth too.

We need to know that our works (religious or otherwise) will not result in salvation, but we also need to know that our salvation will result in works. We are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10 KJV). Salvation and work are inextricably bound. If that worries you – if it gives you the theological heebie-jeebies – just remember this: The grace of salvation is not opposed to work – it is the foundation of our works. It is opposed to merit. We cannot earn our way. But if we think that because we can’t work our way to salvation that we won’t have to work out our salvation, we’re badly mistaken. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

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The Workout

When I was a kid, college students were holding sit-ins on campuses around the country to protest the Vietnam War. They would occupy a campus building, like the administration building – and sit on the floor. Students, and sometimes Profs, filled up every square foot of floor space, disrupting business and making a general nuisance of themselves. Sooner or later the police would come and break it up, maybe arrest a few kids and occasionally sit down next to them.

We even had a sit-in at my high school, though I can’t remember why exactly. I think we might have been protesting cafeteria food. (Our ideals were, I’m afraid, less altruistic than those of others.)

Salvation is not a sit-in. It’s a workout. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you…”

I know that some reader will get jittery, seeing the words “salvation” and “work” in the same sentence, worried that I’m espousing some kind of works salvation. But don’t forget that long before I used those two words in the same sentence, the Apostle Paul did. It was he who wrote, “Work out your salvation.” Salvation is a workout, not a sit-in. If your salvation rouses you to no effort, something is wrong.

When Paul wanted to describe our role in salvation, he chose the word the NIV translates as work out. The Greek word has the idea of working at something until it is finished. So, for example, the Bible uses this word of cultivating the ground and of building a house. The ground is cultivated with intention of planting a vineyard. The house is built with the intention of taking up residence. In both cases, the idea is of working at something so that it will be finished – the vineyard so that you can eat its grapes and drink its wine, the house so that you can move in and live in it.

When the Bible talks about planting a vineyard and building a house, it’s talking about good things, but this same word can be (and is) also used of working evil. In Romans 2:9 Paul writes about people who work – who cultivate, who build – evil. They work evil like a farmer works a field, and one day it will come ripe, and then they will be served evil on a platter. They work at it like a builder builds a house. One day it will be completed, and then they will have to live in what they’ve built.

The NIV translates the Greek of this verse as “Continue to work out your salvation…” That translation attempts to express the ongoing nature of the present tense of the verb. This work is not something you do once and are done. The salvation inside you is so big, it will take a lifetime to work out. There is so much potential in God’s salvation that you cannot unpack it in a few years or even in a lifetime – it will take an eternity.

If you are expending no energy in your salvation workout – if you never break a sweat, never feel a doubt, never strain under temptation – you’re not doing it right. It’s like spending an hour at the gym. If you never break a sweat, never strain against the weights or get your heart rate into triple digits, you’re not doing it right. Paul did not say “Talk out your salvation.” He said, “Work out” (or it could simply be translated work) your salvation.”

The Greek root in this word is erg, which means “work.” We get words like “energy” and “ergonomics” (and even “allergy”) from this root. In the church we often hear that salvation is “by grace” and “not by works,” and that is solid biblical truth. But we need to make sure we are not drawing the wrong conclusion from that truth. We can mistakenly assume that, because salvation does not result from our work, it must not necessitate our work. That is a serious error. Salvation does not result from work but it does result in work. As Philip Melancthon put it, “We are saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.” It walks in company with its dear friend “work.”

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Let’s Get Our Bearings Before We Give Directions

In the summer of 2016, my wife and I were on a 70,000-acre lake in Quebec that we had never been to before. On the third or fourth morning we were there, I took the boat out by myself. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but the east was already turning colors and steam was rising everywhere off the lake.

It was so gorgeous that I fumbled around for my camera and was taking pictures as I headed toward a spot we had fished the previous evening. I didn’t stop the boat to take pictures because I was hoping to reach that bay before the sun broke the horizon. So, with the outboard at full throttle, I’d take a picture, look at it in the view screen, delete it if I didn’t like it, then take another.

I had been doing this for five or ten minutes and was passing through a straight that opened up into a much larger arm of the lake. That was when I looked around and realized I didn’t know where I was. The landscape was not at all familiar. I was lost.

When you don’t know where you are, you don’t know how to get where you’re going. I immediately stopped the boat and sat still on the glassy water. I got out the rudimentary map we had been given when we arrived – it was more like a restaurant placemat than a real map – and tried to figure out where I was.

The sun would soon rise behind me, over my right shoulder. I had just passed a rocky point while veering to the right. Could I locate that point on my placemat map? What I needed was one of those maps one sees at highway rest stops, the ones with an arrow and the caption, “You Are Here.”

I think our nation could use one of those maps. Everyone is busy giving directions but does anyone really know where we are? Because when you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going.

The brutal killing of George Floyd has brought this situation into sharp relief. America has long been disoriented on race issues. We are not sure where we are but everyone is telling us where we should go: Defund and disband police departments; increase funding to police departments; heroize Black Lives Matter; demonize Black Lives Matter; “Law and Order”; “No Justice, No Peace.”

Perhaps we should stop giving directions for a moment, try to get our bearings, and find the “You Are Here” arrow. That, however, is no easy feat when society’s surveyors are producing maps that differ on important details and we are not looking at the same map.

At one time in the United States, most of our cultural maps were based on the explorations of men and women in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Most people trusted those maps and, even when they weren’t following them (which was often), they took their accuracy for granted. This is not now the case.

Perhaps the best we can do these days is to agree on the broad outlines of the map. If we no longer have a “You Are Here” arrow, perhaps we can at least draw a “You Are Around Here” circle. To do that, we need to listen to and work with people who are reading different maps.

I will nevertheless continue to trust the map compiled by ancient Jewish and Christian explorers that we know as the Bible. It has proved invaluable. But I have less confidence in the maps derived by later explorers in the tradition, though some have been extremely helpful.

Those later maps have too often been drawn on skewed cultural projections that have led society away from the destination. The mistreatment of indigenous peoples and the legally sanctioned exploitation of African Americans are examples of what happens when the map society is following is distorted.

Such distortions need to be recognized and the lines redrawn, but one will not go wrong by referring to the ancient map of the Bible. Even in today’s world, it can help us find our way to a more just and loving society.

(First published by Gatehouse Media)

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Prejudice: Going After the Root

When enough people care enough about prejudice, when concern reaches critical mass, action is taken. This usually means that legislation is passed or new policies enacted. The display of hatred associated with a particular prejudice – for example, race discrimination in housing – is outlawed.

Such legislation is necessary and improves conditions for many people but it does not dispel prejudice. It may remove it from sight but, until the fear and hatred which motivate it are eradicated, it will not eliminate it. Prejudice will simply mutate.

This is not to say that legislation is useless or policy changes are a waste of time. Legislation is to prejudice what quarantine orders are to Covid-19: a means of limiting its destructive impact. Limiting its impact is a worthy goal, one to which people can nobly give their lives and energies, but we must be realistic. Passing legislation, revising policies, and changing structures will not get to the root of the problem.

What is needed is a radical solution to a problem that is buried deep in the human person. Prejudice is not native to America, though it has manifested itself throughout American history. It is a human problem. One of my closest friends, a dark-skinned Bengali, born in Kolkata in the 1950s, grew up on the subcontinent where lighter skinned people received better treatment than their darker skinned neighbors.

A radical solution requires, I believe, a transformative spiritual encounter. We cannot go on as we are – with the ideas we have subconsciously imbibed since infancy channeling our thoughts – and still eliminate prejudice, even if we truly desire to do so. Laws and policies need to change but so do we.

Our ideas need to change at a profound and unseen level. This is known, in religious circles, as “repentance.” (The compound Greek word so translated in the Bible is comprised of a prefix suggesting “change” and a root meaning “mind.”) When ideas change, individuals change (this is known as “conversion”), and when enough individuals change, society does too.

Legislation and policy changes are not radical enough. Prejudice will “outsmart” such things by mutating. Only a profound personal transformation can eliminate prejudice by uprooting the fear and hatred growing in the depths.

This has happened in history. In a time when prejudice was rampant, ideologically supported, and structurally engrained, a group of transformed people were, in large part, freed from it. They were such a contrast to the society around them that everyone took notice.

The people who comprised this radical group came from different ethnic and national backgrounds. They didn’t dress alike, eat the same foods, keep the same schedules, or belong to the same organizations. Their lives had been as separate and unequal as possible. They were Jews and Gentiles, yet they were melded together in the nascent Church of Jesus Christ.

One of their chief spokesmen, the Apostle Paul, wrote that in the Church “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” In one rhetorical swoop, he gathered the principal prejudices of the day and unmade them. This was only possible, he was careful to articulate, because Greeks and Jews and barbarians and Scythians had undergone radical, spiritual change.

In our own country, with our own structurally ensconced prejudices, this same kind of thing once happened. On an April evening in Los Angeles in 1906, a group of praying men were transformed in a spiritual encounter. One of them, a black man, the son of emancipated slaves, became the public face of what has come to be known as the Azusa Street Revival.

During one of the worst decades of racial violence in American history – a thousand black men lynched, hundreds of thousands of white people in the KKK – Latinos, whites, Asians, and blacks were meeting together, praying together, and embracing one another as brothers and sisters. They did this not because it was legislated but because they were changed.

Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash

We who desire societal transformation should make our views known to our legislators. More importantly, we should plead with God to transform us into the kind of people who experience Jesus’s love and concern for others and reflect it to the world around us.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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The Holy Spirit: Getting the Facts, Missing the Point

This message from Acts 1 was preached on Pentecost Sunday, 2020. It can be read below or viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebZnMjCbpok (the sermon begins at 21:05.)

(Acts 1:1-8) In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is Pentecost Sunday, the day the church celebrates the reality-transforming, church-birthing, human-metamorphosing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The God who so loved that he gave his Son also so loved that he gave his Spirit … and nothing has been the same since.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. It has been said that a person without the Spirit can never be more than a second-class Christian, but St. Paul went further than that. He said that without the Spirit, a person cannot be a Christian at all: “…if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9).

Without the Spirit, there would be no church. A religious group can have a nave, altar, sacristy, pulpit, and steeple, but they’ll only have a church if they have the Spirit.

The Greek phrase ἐν πνεύματι (in or by the Spirit) appears 152 times in the New Testament. We are led by the Spirit, we rejoice by the Spirit, we worship the Father by the Spirit, are indwelt by the Spirit, are gifted by the Spirit, are marked as God’s people by the Spirit, love each other by the Spirit – I could go on.

With the Holy Spirit, we are connected to God’s own life. With the Spirit, we are connected to each other. With the Spirit we can confess Jesus Christ and actually know him. With the Spirit, we can live the Christian life now and expect glory in the future.

But what is the Holy Spirit—so ominously called by earlier versions the “Holy Ghost”? First, let’s get our nomenclature right. People sometimes refer to the Spirit with the impersonal pronoun “it,” as though the Spirit were something subpersonal – a force or an influence. It is more appropriate to refer to the Spirit with the personal pronoun, for the Spirit is a person who teaches, chooses, acts, reasons, and can be grieved. You wouldn’t want to be referred to as an “it” – neither does the Spirit. Now it is true that the Spirit is more than a person, as we understand personhood, but he is not less. He is “suprapersonal.”[1]

St. Luke wrote a sequel to his Gospel, known as The Acts of the Apostles (though that title is not original) which is all about the Holy Spirit. In fact, a better title would be, The Acts of the Holy Spirit or The Acts of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is mentioned in the first sentence of this book, and then 55 more times as the story progresses.

When we read Acts, we can’t help but be impressed by the importance of the Spirit. Again and again, we see what sort of things the Spirit does but might miss why he does them.

Let me illustrate how a person can know what and yet miss why. Say someone from a church in southeastern Mali, a church with whom our church has connected, comes to Michigan to stay for six months and you open your home to him and offer your hospitality. You want to give him a distinctively American experience, so you take him to a ball game.

He has already watched a couple of games with you on TV, and you’ve explained to him that when one team is on offense the other is on defense. You’ve explained that, while on defense, a team will have 9 players on the field but on offense a team always starts with just one player. If he hits a ball and no one gets him out, the team on offense gets to add a second player to the field, and so on. He asks you what it means to “get him out,” and you explain that bases as safe zones and that on offense the goal is to go from base to bases until you reach home. He takes all that in.

With this as background, you take him to a Tiger’s game. He cheers every time someone (doesn’t matter which team he is on) hits the ball. He shouts out, “He’s safe!” “He’s out!” He knows about pitching and hitting, about outs and innings, and offense and defense. The one thing you forgot to tell him – so basic you didn’t think to mention it – is that teams keep score. So he knows lots of things about baseball and has a general framework in mind, but he doesn’t know about winning, losing, and keeping score.

That’s rather a big thing to miss, isn’t it? (Especially when the visiting team hits a grand slam in the ninth and he stands up and cheers!) When it comes to the Spirit, we can understand many individual truths but miss the big thing: what winning is. Winning in The Book of Acts and in the Bible is the victory of the kingdom of God.

The Book of Acts is about God’s kingdom. Luke lets us know that in the second sentence of the book: “[Jesus] appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” In the closing sentence of the book, Luke again mentions the kingdom of God. In biblical scholarship, this is known as an inclusio, the practice of setting out one’s subject or thesis by opening and closing with it.

We all understand the Bible within a particular framework, just like our Malian friend understood (or misunderstood) baseball within a particular framework. The most common framework among evangelical Christians is built with four major planks: Creation, Fall, Redemption (which is most of the Bible) and New Creation. That is a helpful way to look at the Bible, which gives us the major components but might leave us missing the point – it might not tell us what it means to win. To understand that, we need to understand kingdom.

A kingdom alteration to that framework might help: God the Artist-Creator King makes a universe and rules over it, including humans whom he made to rule the earth as his regents – as sub-kings and queens. That is Genesis 1 and 2 and parallels the creation plank. But notice the kingdom dimension.

With that kingdom dimension, we realize the next plank was not just a fall but a rebellion. The humans chose not to rule under God but to try to rule alongside him – to “be like God.” That is Genesis 3, with supporting material that follows through chapter 11. In chapters 4-11, we see everything falling apart. There really is a “fall” but it was preceded by a rebellion.

The redemption plank is not just about how humans get to heaven but about how God is restoring his own kingdom and restoring humans to the place of regents, as glorious sub-kings and queens. God chose a person Abraham (that is Genesis 12) whose family would accept his rule (that is Genesis 18) and extend it (that is Exodus 19) as a “kingdom of priests” and through whom all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.

Abraham’s descendants, however, make the same mistake Adam made. They choose to rule themselves rather than have God rule them (that is 1st Samuel 8). So God gives them what they desire – a king other than himself – but he also gives them a promise: that one day he will place his own king on the throne, a king who will be his son (this is 2nd Samuel 7, Psalm 2, Psalm 110, and many other places), and will rule forever.

This was the hope of God’s people at the close of the Old Testament: God’s kingdom will come. The narrative takes a giant leap forward in the Gospels, when God incarnates himself in human flesh in Jesus Christ and bursts on the scene with the announcement: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). Through Jesus the God-Man, God’s rightful place as the king of kings and humanity’s rightful place as kings under the king are restored. This is how God wins and we win with him.

Notice that when the apostles ask Jesus (verse 6): “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” he does not answer, “No, we gave up on that plan,” but rather, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set…” (verse 7). In other words, that’s not your business, but you do have other business to attend to (this is verse 8, the key verse in The Book of Acts): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

(I say that is the key verse because Luke organized the entire book around it. What Jesus says here launches a world-wide Kingdom of God campaign, which Luke chronicles. He pauses the story at different points to provide progress reports on the campaign. In 2:47 and 6:7, Jesus’s people are witnesses in Jerusalem. In 8:1 they are in Judea. In 9:31, Samaria has been reached. In 12:24, they have become witnesses outside of Israel’s borders. By 16:5 they have reached Asia and Galatia. In 19:20, the witnesses are set to cross into Europe. And in 28:31, the Kingdom of God has come to Rome, the heart of the Empire.)[2]

Now notice that Jesus did not say, “When the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will witness for me” (a verb) but rather “You will be my witnesses,” (a noun). That’s important. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just empower us to do things. He transforms us into a certain kind of person – a Jesus-kind of person. The presence of the Spirit in a person is a catalyst that causes the person to change / evolve / transform into a different kind of being, a metamorphosis from what St. Paul calls in Greek, “a sarkikos” (a merely biological being) into “a pneumatikos” (a spiritual being).

You’ve heard people talk about the next step in evolution? Well, this is it: not a step from a lower form of biological life to a higher, but from solely biological to a spiritual/biological hybrid, which is to say, to a genuine human being.

Jesus didn’t order his apostles to go witness but he promised them that they would become witnesses, after the Holy Spirit came on them. The presence of the Spirit and the transformation he engenders in both individuals and (even more importantly) in churches is a powerful witness for King Jesus. The church is a kingdom colony in the world. A transformed individual is a wonder. A transformed community of individuals – that is, the church – is proof that the kingdom of God has arrived.

When the Spirit was given, he was given to Jesus’s people corporately, not just to certain people individually. Peter and the Apostles were not the only recipients. This was something new and it suggests the crucial importance of the church in God’s kingdom strategy.

After Jesus was taken up before their eyes, the men just stood there, looking up into heaven. I don’t know how long they would have stood there, but something happened to move them along. (These are verses 10-11): “…suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’”

“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” say these two men (presumably angels). In other words: “Didn’t you hear what Jesus said? You don’t want him to find you staring up into the sky with your mouths open when he comes back, do you? You’ve got things to attend to. You better get busy.”

And they got busy. But notice how they got busy (v. 14): They didn’t organize a march or plan a campaign or hold a seminar. They got busy praying.

As Jim Cymbala put it, “The Christian church was born not in a clever sermon” (or, I would add, an inspiring worship service, a seminary class, or an evangelistic crusade) “but in a prayer meeting.”[3]

There is no a formula for being filled with the Spirit but notice what these believers did. They not only prayed, they obeyed. They obeyed the Scriptures (particularly Ps. 69 and 109, which, I suspect, came to their attention while they were praying the psalms in their prayer meeting.) They obeyed the Scripture as best they knew how.

That is how to wait for the Spirit: pray and obey. When we do that in the context of longing to honor Jesus, the Spirit comes. No amount of doctrinal correctness, liturgical propriety, or religious enthusiasm can take the place of a genuine desire to exalt Jesus. That is what the Spirit does. That is what he cares about. And when he finds people who also care about that, he comes.

And when he comes, people change. Churches change. Neighborhoods change. Communities change. Eventually, everything changes. You have heard the disturbing news about the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent riots in Minneapolis. You know Mr. Floyd was black but you might not know that he was our brother. The blood that flowed for him flowed for us: the blood of Jesus.

The world is talking about how this man from Houston’s Third Ward died but his friends from Houston are talking about how he lived: how he helped ministries come into the neighborhood, stood up with people at their baptisms, told young men, as a friend of his described it, “that God trumps street culture” His friend said, “he wanted to see young men put guns down and have Jesus instead.”[4]

The racial injustice, suspicion, and hatred flaring up all over our country is frightening. It is heartbreaking. It must stop – but how? Electing a black president didn’t stop it. Education hasn’t stopped it. Race and equity training hasn’t stopped it. But there was a brief time and a defined place in U.S. history when, for a while, it did stop.

It was during one of the worst decades of racial violence in America’s history. In the decade prior to 1906, lynchings of African Americans skyrocketed. Though official records were not kept, historians believe that more than a thousand blacks were lynched. And during that time, hundreds of thousands of Americans were joining the KKK.

Then in 1906, God poured out the Holy Spirit in an Acts 2 way in Los Angeles. People call it the Azusa Street Revival. One of the principal leaders was a black man, William Seymour. Tens of thousands of people – rich, poor, men, women, native-born, immigrants, blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos – encountered the Spirit of Jesus. In this place where the Spirit controlled, whites weren’t lynching blacks, they were embracing them and being embraced by them as brothers and sisters. Frank Bartleman, who has written on the Azusa Street Revival, put it this way: “The color line is washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ!”[5]

But the Spirit does not come because we want to improve racial relations, though where he comes that happens. The Spirit comes because he sees an opportunity to honor Jesus. When that is what we want – to honor him, to be like him, to introduce people to him – the Spirit comes.

That is what happened in Acts 2. The Day of Pentecost is about Jesus because the Spirit is about Jesus. When we are about King Jesus, we will experience the presence and power of the Spirit. We will be transformed. We will be his witnesses. And our church will be a place where love and justice and peace – the hallmarks of the kingdom of God – pervade everything.


[1] Anthony Thistelton, “The Holy Spirit and the Life of the Church,” https://www.catalystresources.org/the-holy-spirit-and-the-life-of-the-church/

[2] See Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Ac). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Jim Cymbala, “Leadership,” Vol. 14, no. 4.

[4] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html

[5] Rich Nathan, Both-And (IVP Books, 2013), page 48.

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How to Handle Pressure (Part 2)

St. Paul knew all about stress and he knew how to handle it.

In Corinthians 4:8, Paul describes what his stressful life could be like. He says he was “Pressed” – squeezed like grapes – on every side but not crushed.” The word crushed is interesting. It means caved in, restricted. We get our word stenosis – the narrowing, closing of an artery – from this word. Paul is the only biblical author who uses it, and the only other time he uses it is to picture one’s affection being so restricted that it no longer flows. That is the danger. When we are under pressure, the flow of affection can be shut off – to our spouses and children and friends. Paul knew that it need not be that way. “Pressed . . . but not crushed.”

Then Paul says he is perplexed. A number of other biblical writer use this word. Several times it is translated as “at a loss.” Etymologically it carries the idea of not knowing which way to go. At a loss, Paul says, but not in despair. He had been perplexed enough times to know that, though he was at a loss, he would not lose out. God would make a way; he is the way-making God. He “makes a way in the wilderness,” the prophet says, and the apostle adds that he makes a way out of every temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). We sometimes find ourselves at a loss, at a seeming dead-in, like the fleeing Israelites when they came to the Red Sea. There is no way to go forward, and no way to go back. Paul had known that experience, and yet God always made a way. Perplexed, but not in despair.

Things got even worse. In verse 9, Paul says that he was persecuted. The word could be translated “hounded.” Everywhere he went, people were following him around, telling him how wrong he was; telling other people how wrong he was. Sometimes he just wanted to scream, “Get off my back.” He hit a low point when his trial was held in Rome and no one was there to support him. (Read 2 Timothy 4 sometime). He felt deserted. Persecuted, he says, but not abandoned. When everyone else left, his awareness that God was with him grew even stronger.

The word translated abandoned in this verse is used elsewhere in Scripture: most notably, in Matthew 27:46, when from the cross Jesus cried, “Eli, Eli! Lama sabachthani?” My God, my God! Why have you – here’s our word – forsaken me?” We know the answer to that question. He was forsaken so that we might be forgiven. “Keep your lives free from the love of money,” the author of Hebrews writes, “and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). Paul counted on that.

He says (still verse 9), “Struck down, but not destroyed.” We might paraphrase, “Down, but not out.” The same Greek word, interestingly, is used of laying a foundation – something that gets put down . . . and walked on! Ever feel like people are walking all over you? Paul did but he was not destroyed. (The word has the idea of coming apart at the seams). Maybe you feel as if your seams are fraying. You need to know that God is the universe’s best tailor. He can mend those seams again, stronger than before.

Paul endured relentless pressure, not for a short time but year after year and – here’s the thing – was still joyful. He was often in over his head, but he didn’t drown. What was his secret?

(Look next week for the third and final installment of  “How to Handle Pressure.”)

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While We Were Looking Elsewhere

In late January, the U.S. had its first confirmed coronavirus case. Though the coronavirus was in the news, it seemed far away, like the SARS outbreak in 2003 or the Ebola epidemic that began in 2013.

On February 29, the U.S. reported its first confirmed Covid-19 death. Within two weeks, President Trump had banned most visitors from Europe and declared a national emergency. Since that time, Covid-19 has dominated nearly everyone’s thinking.

I am a pastor, and pastors are always thinking about the church. What does God want us to do? How can we love people in the church at their point of need? How can we bless and help those outside the church? How can we grow in our knowledge of God and our experience of his grace?

Over the past two months, much of our thinking about the church has circled around the coronavirus. First it was: can we continue meeting together for worship services? That quickly morphed to questions about technologies: what platforms should we use for online services, staff and board meetings? How can our employees work from home? Will we be forced to lay off staff?

Every day for months, church leaders (like most Americans) have had to deal with Covid-19 decisions. Stream services? Apply for the PPP? Reopen? How will we social distance when we are back together? When should Sunday School restart? How about Family Ministries meetings? When will it be safe to resume children’s in-person programming?

Such things need to be considered, of course, but Covid-19 cannot be all that we think about. There are other things going on. Tomorrow, I will officiate a service for a family who lost their loved one. It will be the fourth such service in two weeks, including one for a good friend and co-worker. None of them had the coronavirus. Life (and death) goes on, even in a pandemic.

If the pandemic (and the politics that circle around it like turbulence around a hurricane’s eye) is all we can think about, we will miss out on life. We will miss out on the good God is always doing, even in the storm. We may also fail to avoid the bad things that happen independent of the virus.

A few years ago, some Hollywood director must have realized the impact a collision scene – particularly one viewers did not see coming – would have on an audience. Since then, one director after another has used the unforeseen T-Bone collision for its shock value. I wonder, as we stare down the road the pandemic is taking, if we are on such a collision course with the unseen.

Something like that has happened on the international scene. According to USA Today, while the U.S. was giving its attention to the pandemic, Iran was harassing our warships in the Persian Gulf. A Russian fighter harried a U.S. surveillance plane over the Mediterranean, and North Korea launched a barrage of missiles.

This kind of thing happens in ordinary people’s lives too. A lawyer fixes his eyes on the path to becoming a partner – big cases, long hours, the obligatory schmoozing – and doesn’t notice his family falling apart. Then comes the shocking collision, the broken family, the injured people.

The biblical writer tells Christians to “fix your eyes on Jesus.” The founder and perfecter of the faith is the believer’s point of reference, though “point of reference” may be misleading since it suggests something stationary. Jesus, however, is not stationary. He did not say, “Sit and watch me,” but “Come, follow me.”

Following him – which includes doing what he taught us to do in the ways he demonstrated – requires faith at all times, not just during a crisis. Believers trust him to know what potential collisions are coming and lead away from them – to lead them “not into temptation” (or “trial” as the word means). When we follow Jesus in a crisis – Covid-19 is but one example – we will not be fixated on the things everyone else is talking about. We will not be overawed by the crisis. We will deal with it appropriately, retain our emotional balance, and become a source of hope and peace to friends and family.

First published by Gatehouse Media.

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