Doormat Faith: There Is Something Better

Some people have a “doormat faith.” I found the term in John Dickson’s book, “The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission.” Dickson is not referring to a faith that makes people into a doormat, but the kind of faith that brings people to the door but does not see them inside.

To avoid argument, I willingly acknowledge that some people of faith act like doormats and let people walk over them. Critics have gone further and argued that some people let others walk over them because of their faith, because pastors and Sunday School teachers have taught them that acting like a doormat is pious and godly. I will not deny this has happened. I will strenuously deny this is the result of faith.

Take the person who has suffered spousal abuse on and off for years. She has been instructed by her pastor that her marriage vows are sacred. She has been taught to submit to her husband. In a case like this, is her faith not responsible for her “doormat” status in the marriage?

I would argue it is not. It is a misunderstanding of faith, perpetuated by misinformed church leaders, that has enabled the abuse. This is not faith at work, but ignorance. Rather than enabling the abuse, the church ought to be the first to confront the abuser and empower the abused.

It is true that the church teaches submission, including in marriage. It is not true that this teaching is limited to marriage or directed only to women. Submission is a characteristic trait of all Jesus’s followers, both men and women. They submit to God, first of all, but also to duly appointed government leaders. They submit to church leaders, to spouses, and to each other.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that submission makes them a doormat. Submission makes them supportive and encouraging, not weak and exploited. Submission does not remove their responsibility to judge for themselves what is right and to stand against what is wrong.

When people who have faith act like doormats, it is not because of their faith but in spite of it. Faith makes people courageous, not cowardly. It makes them firm, not feeble.

By “doormat faith” I (following Dickson) do not mean faith that turns people into doormats but faith that gets people to the doormat and leaves them there. They remain outside of the kind of life that apprenticeship to Jesus makes possible.

Doormat faith is not the obedience-producing, righteousness-accompanying, love-expressing faith about which St. Paul so frequently wrote. Doormat faith brings no assurance. It falls short of being transformational.

This is not to say that doormat faith is a bad thing. It is certainly no substitute for the faith that connects a person to God, but it can be a precursor to it. Its strength is that it leads people to the doorstep of a richly satisfying life with God. Its weakness is that it cannot bring people through the door. It is good, but it is not enough.

Doormat faith is the kind that professes belief in God but fails to provide a connection to him. It says, “I believe Jesus died for my sins,” but does not go on to confess Jesus as Lord and leader of life.

As a long-time pastor, I have met many people with doormat faith. I am thankful for them, yet I know there is so much more for them to experience now and forever. If they are content to say, “I believe in God,” they are too easily contented. Such faith is meant to be the beginning of a journey, not its end.

How sad when people arrive at the doorstep but fail to go in. Their faith does not move them to action. They don’t become part of a life-enhancing community of Jesus’s followers. They don’t forgive – or even think they should. They don’t experience peace. Yet the door is open.

Sometimes these folks – I have met some – cross the threshold at the end of their lives and enter into a genuine connection with God. It is good that their doormat faith has led them to something better but it is heartbreaking to see them wait so long and miss so much.

(First published by Gatehouse Media.)

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The Church: The Bride of Christ (pt. 1)

(You can watch and listen to the sermon The Bride of Christ (pt. 1) here. It begins at 23:34.)

We are winding up our series on the church this week and next. During the past months, we have been pouring over biblical images that express what the church is about. That has been rich (for me, at least) but it has also been limiting. There is much to discover about the church that we have not explored, much that is spelled out in statement and command rather than portrayed in image. But we will save that for another day.

The images of the Church we have looked at include: temple and priesthood; family; new humanity; and Body of Christ. Last week we explored the image of the church as a Kingdom of God colony. This week and next week, we conclude the series with the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Today, we will be surveying biblical texts from Old and New Testaments, which means there will be more teaching than preaching. Step one will be to discover Old Testament sources, where the images are like film before it has been developed, what photographers call “negatives.” Then step two will take us to the Gospels, where the images are brought into contact with Christ and are changed.

Then we will turn to the letters of Paul, where step three in the development process takes place. We’ll take the final step next week, when we go to the Book of The Revelation, where the hope-inspiring picture of the Bride of Christ is framed. We start, however, in the Old Testament with the originals.

Before we start developing the image, though, there is a little straightening up to do. There are songs, poems, and hymns, as well as liturgies, that speak as if individuals are the Bride of Christ. That kind of talk began somewhere around the 14th century among Christian mystics. Union with Christ was romanticized. Individuals, both women and men, pictured themselves as brides of Christ.

In the Catholic church, a ritual emerged in which women who had taken orders – nuns – were ritually married to Christ. The catechism says, “Virgins who … are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite are betrothed mystically to Christ…”

There is much here I do not understand and do not intend to criticize. There is something beautiful in the picture of a person being mystically betrothed to Christ but it is not a biblical picture. It was not developed in the Bible but in the medieval Church. The biblical picture is not of an individual, not even a nun, being the bride of Christ. Rather, it is the Church that is Christ’s betrothed and will become, on some glorious future day, his bride.

With that, let’s turn to the Bible. Doctrines don’t come out of nowhere. St. Paul and St. John did not conjure up the image of the Bride of Christ out of thin air. They were men who knew the Old Testament, memorized large parts of it, and thought about its message a lot. As they thought about those biblical passages, the Holy Spirit gave them the image of the Church as a bride—the Messiah’s bride, the bride of Christ.

One of the earliest sources for this image is Psalm 45, which is a wedding song, composed for an ancient king of Israel. It pictures the king, in all his glory, on the day of his wedding. Then it turns to the royal bride. She has the bridegroom’s full attention: he is enthralled by her beauty. The nations pay her tribute. Her future is brighter than her past.

The author of Hebrews quotes word for word from this Psalm[1] and – here’s the thing – applies what it says about the king to Jesus. He identifies Jesus as the Psalm 45 bridegroom. But who is the bride? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t go there.

When we move out of the Psalms, we come to the ancient prophet Hosea, another early source for the Bride of Christ image. In Hosea, God speaks of wooing Israel as if it was a woman. He tells her what life will be like for her when she is his wife. He then says, “in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband’” (see Hosea 2:14-23). So, here we have an early picture of the covenant people as a bride and God himself as the groom.

That brings us to Jeremiah, who prophesied during the darkest time of Judah’s history. Her enemies were powerful. Her kings were corrupt. Idolatry was everywhere. In chapter 2, Jeremiah reminds the nation that they once loved God and were faithful to him. He pictures God saying to them: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…” (Jeremiah 2:2). But Jeremiah goes on to picture God’s people as having lost interest in him. They are like a wife who has feelings for other men. They have – this is Jeremiah’s word – “strayed.”

That idea is repeated again and again when the Old Testament takes up the image of wife or bride. The bride is not pure. She is flirting with other men. She has been unfaithful.

One of the clearest pictures of God’s bride comes in the exile prophet Ezekiel.[2] He pictures Israel as a young waif, dirty, not much to look at, pitiful. But God notices her, cares for her and, when she is old enough, enters into a covenant of marriage with her; he becomes engaged to her. He provides her with the best clothes and jewels and her transformation is amazing.

She was, for lack of a better word, a street kid: poor, filthy, and uneducated. He changed her life, made her wealthy, made her famous. But she became vain, more interested in her looks and what they could bring her than she was in her husband-to-be. As in the other pictures, she strayed. She was unfaithful.

These pictures are the source for the image of the Bride of Christ. They are bittersweet. The sweet is the unfailing love God has for his people, which is like a husband’s love for his bride. The bitter is the flaw in his people’s character that causes them to act unfaithfully toward God, like a wife who strays from her husband.

Yet the Old Testament writers were also hopeful. Hosea insists that a day is coming when the bride (or bride-to-be) will no longer stray. God will then say: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD” (Hosea 2:19-20). Isaiah speaks of a day when God will rejoice over his people as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. (Isaiah 62:5).

All that brings us to the New Testament and to two of the Apostle Paul’s letters. He takes up the Old Testament image of Bridegroom and Bride and applies it to Christ and his Church. And some of the same themes emerge.

But there is a step in the development process that comes between the Old Testament and Paul: the Gospels. Before Paul pictured Jesus as a bridegroom, John the Baptist did. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, he said: “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” John pictured Jesus as a bridegroom.

Jesus put his seal on the image by telling a story in which a bridegroom comes to take his bride to the wedding.[3] From the earliest time, the church understood that story to be about Jesus himself. 

Now, we’re ready to go to Paul’s letters, starting with 2 Corinthians 11. Paul says to the Corinthian Church: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

The Old Testament themes are there. The new covenant people are betrothed – “promised … to one husband, to Christ.” They are to be faithful to him. But Paul fears they will stray, their devotion to Christ will fade, and they will look to others for fulfillment. They are too easily swayed, too ready to accept the sweet talk of another.

That was a danger for the Church in the first century. Do you think it is a danger now? It is always a danger. It is what the prophets complained about and warned against in Old Testament times, what Paul complained about and warned against in New Testament times and, what we must guard against in our time.

The church must not let itself be led away from its sincere devotion to Christ. The temptation to stray is subtle. It often begins with an implied (and conditional) promise of importance, or power, or safety.  It is not exactly wrong – at least, it can be argued that it is not – but it is not quite right either. Mayor LaGuardia once described it as “a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”

The temptation appeals to our pride or plays on our fear. It warns of all the things that may be lost but hides the cost of keeping them. It makes us think that we can get control of our situation, but we will have to give ourselves to something other than Christ to do it.

Before we know it, our devotion has been transferred from Christ to someone or something else. We are more excited about it than we are about him. We promote it more eagerly than we promote him. If you asked us, we would, like the Corinthians in Paul’s day, say that our devotion to Christ is unchanged. But it has changed and we didn’t notice it – or didn’t want to. Something has taken his place in our lives.

There is a word for that: “idolatry.” It is spiritual unfaithfulness – just what Paul was afraid of. There are three things about idolatry we ought to know. First, it somehow doesn’t seem idolatrous. There is a fascinating story in Judges of a family that makes an idol, sets up a shrine, and then hires a priest. It is an egregious violation of God’s covenant yet, amazingly, the man does not see it as idolatry. In fact, after hiring the idolatrous priest, he says, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me…” (Judges 17:13). Idolatry doesn’t seem idolatrous to the idolater.

The second thing about idolatry is that it – whether political idolatry, economic idolatry, job idolatry, the idolatry of a cause – usually seems to work … at first. Give your job the devotion you owe to Christ, and you are liable to get a promotion. People will notice. You will get a raise. It will work … at first.

But your job is a lousy god. Make it an idol and it will let you down, cause you to question your worth, and corrode your relationships. How many people who make a job their idol succeed just long enough to lose everything important to them?

The third thing about idolatry is that it relocates our identity to the idol and away from Christ. If it is political idolatry, we reflexively think of ourselves as a Democrat or a Republican. That becomes our identity. If it is job idolatry, we think of ourselves as the I.T. guy or the boss or the right-hand man or woman. If it is the idolatry of a cause, we identify as the social justice hero, or the balanced budget warrior, or the environmental enthusiast.

I say nothing against the Democrat or the Republican. I applaud the social justice activist. I will stand with both the balanced budget warrior and the environmental enthusiast, but I am first and last a person who belongs to Jesus Christ. That is my identity. I will not let an identify thief steal that from me.

Don’t let it be stolen from you either. If it has already been stolen, and you are just learning about it (which is what happens in identity theft), take steps to get it back! Rethink things, confess what has happened to God, and acknowledge Jesus as more important than any person or thing in your life.

When we come to Ephesians 5, the same themes reappear. Paul is writing about the Spirit-filled life and how it expresses itself through submission and love in Christian relationships, including marriage. He illustrates by pointing to the church’s submission to Christ and Christ’s love for the church. He talks about the church being a pure bride on her wedding day: “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

This is the Bride of Christ. And, in case we got a little lost in the other relationships he’s been talking about, Paul makes it perfectly clear in verse 32: “I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Alright. Let’s pull it all together. The Church of Jesus, as new covenant people, are dedicated to Christ the way a fiancé is dedicated to her soon-to-be husband.

The great danger is that we will let something come between us and our Lord, just as things came between Israel and her God. Those things can be summarized in a single word: idolatry. We may – rather, we will ­– be tempted (2 Corinthians 11:3). We must not be deceived by subtle proposals and flirtations that lead the church away from its pure devotion to Christ.

Since the Church is not an organization but a people who share the same Spirit – one body (as we have seen) with many members – being led astray happens one member at a time. One is led astray by the promise of money, others by the promise of influence, ease, or prestige, but where her members go, the church goes.

When it comes to the church, what a person does in the privacy of his own home or in the complexity of the workplace has an effect on the entire church. No Christian can say, “That is a private matter, just between God and me.” When a single member succumbs to idolatry, the church’s devotion to Christ is enfeebled.

But if this is the situation, what hope is there? With millions of people, even hundreds of millions, forming one church and the devotion of every single person playing a role, what is the likelihood that the church will be “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish?” The bride mustn’t show up for the wedding in a dirty, stained, and wrinkled dress and the church must not show up stained with idolatry. But what hope is there of that? The hope – the church’s only hope – is in her Bridegroom.

Emma Howard and Chris Greenslade were getting married at Christ the King Church in Christchurch, New Zealand in just three days. On February 22, 2011, just after 1:00, Chris got a text from Emma that said: “It’s Emma here. I’m OK and I love you very much.”

That scared Chris. You see, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake had just hit Christchurch, and he didn’t know what might have happened to Emma. He dropped everything and rushed across town.

When he reached her workplace, he found the building collapsed and rubble everywhere. He called for rescue workers and began an all-out search for Emma and other survivors. For six hours, they dug through debris, moving fallen beams and chunks of concrete. Then they found Emma trapped in a tiny cavity, but safe.

The entire time this was going on, Chris kept sending Emma texts: “I’m with your parents.” “I love you.” “There are lots of men trying to get you out.” Out of the wreck and ruin, the dust and grunge, the death and dying, Chris rescued his bride to be. Three days later, Emma and Chris were married.[4]

In the chaos of contemporary culture, amidst the wreck and ruin and the dust and grunge, how will the church of Jesus possibly be found “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish?” Only through the rescue efforts of her true love and great savior.

He will rescue his beloved and, while he is doing so, he will send her encouraging texts, assuring her of his love and exhorting her to hold on. Nothing can stop him from reaching her and, when he does, he will “cleans[e] her” (Eph. 5:26) “by the washing with water through the word.”

And then the great day will arrive: The Marriage of the Lamb. It will mean a new start for us, for the world, for the universe. The preparations will be worth it – infinitely so. Faithfulness will have its reward.

Until then, do not stray from your devotion to Christ. We all are depending on you. Do not flirt with anything that will draw you away from him, whatever promises it makes. Check your text messages regularly – you will find them in your Bible! The big day is coming. Let’s be ready for it.

[1] Hebrews 1:8-9

[2] Ezekiel 16:4-16

[3] Matthew 25:1-12

[4] (Kristen Gelilneau, “Amid New Zealand Tragedy, the Wedding Must Go On,” Associated Press (2-25-11); submitted by Quintin Stieff, West Des Moines, Iowa)

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People and Their Rituals: Why Do They Do That?

Life is full of rituals, from high church liturgies to baseball players’ on-deck circle routines. Humans are ritual-making creatures. Rituals connect us to the past and remind us of what is important in the present.

How some rituals came into existence is a mystery. For example, who was the first person to think it was a good idea to throw newborns off the Sri Santeswar Temple in Karnatak, India? Don’t worry: family members wait below to catch the child in a cloth-like net. But how does it bring the child good luck?

Then there is the world-famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. In what possible way does running wildly through narrow streets with a stampede of 1,000-pound bulls at people’s heels bring honor to St. Fermin, the city’s patron saint?

Americans have their own strange rituals. Sailors who cross the equator are inducted into the “Order of the Shellback” by King Neptune, with Davy Jones and others in attendance. The ritual usually includes a breakfast that is too spicy to eat and requires “pollywogs” (sailors who have not previously crossed the equator) to kiss the belly of the “royal baby.”

Readers might think that Christians like me would be at home with strange rituals. After all, we take people who profess faith in Jesus Christ and submerge them in water. What possible connection is there between believing in Jesus and getting wet?

It does seem an odd thing to do. “Oh, you want to begin a new life with God? That is great! I am so excited for you. Now, let me stick your head under water.”

Photo by kaleb tapp on Unsplash

I have officiated over baptisms in public swimming areas and have wondered what the lifeguards thought about it all. Did they wonder if they should jump in and save that poor woman from the madman holding her under water? Why would Jesus’s followers do such a thing?

The short answer is that Jesus told them to, but that just kicks the can down the long and winding theological road. Why did Jesus tell them to do this? That question can only be answered by approaching it from two different directions. First, what does baptism mean and, second, what does baptism do?

What baptism means is wrapped up in various images. There is the image of cleansing. Baptism pictures a person’s sins being washed away. So St. Paul, recalling his own baptism, says he was told to “Get up, be baptized, and wash your sins away.”

Baptism also represents the end of the old life and the beginning of a new one in which Jesus is leader. According to the apostle, the baptized person is immersed into Christ’s death in preparation for the new kind of life they are beginning. When they rose from their brief “water burial,” they imaged the resurrection.

To be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be “immersed” (that is the principal meaning of the word) in a life in which God himself is present and preeminent. Baptism is about bringing people fully into the divine fellowship of the Trinity.

Much more could – and needs to be – said about what baptism means. But what does baptism do? In answering that question, it is important not to separate the outward rite from the inward reality it represents. Unless both are present, what I am about to say does not hold true.

Assuming both are present, baptism gives someone a new identity. He or she is identified as Jesus’s person and a member of his people; that is, his church. To be baptized is not merely to join an organization called First Church (or something like it) but to join the world-wide company of those who believe Jesus to be earth’s rightful ruler. It is to join the insurgency of love.

Certain clubs and orders identify their members by passwords and signs. The members of Christ’s insurgency are identified by baptism. Whenever they meet someone who has “come through the waters,” they know they have met a brother or sister in Christ’s service. Baptism is the not-so-secret sign that they belong to Christ and to each other.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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The Church in Biblical Images: Kingdom Colony (Phil. 1:27-30)

(This sermon was preached on 9/13/20. It may be viewed on YouTube. Sermon starts at 21:06. Listening time: 24:31.)

I am sitting in the TV lounge in the dorm during my freshman or sophomore year. There is a cluster of couches in there, all facing the television, with a dozen or more guys scattered around the room. The couch I’m on is full and my friend George Ashok Kumar Das is sitting next to me.

At some point during the movie we are watching, Taupu (that was his nickname) takes my left hand in his right. I recoil. I have no idea that in his culture, as in much of Africa and the Middle East, men hold hands as a sign of friendship and trust.

Every culture has its own customs. In Thailand, if you drop a coin and, to stop it from rolling under your car, you step on it, you might cause great offense. The image of the king’s head is on that coin, and to step on his face is a dreadful insult.

In Vietnam, if you signal to a restaurant server to come to your table, she may pour the soup in your lap because you’ve just treated her as if she were a dog. If you are caught selling chewing gum in Singapore, you could do up to two years in prison and be fined $100,000.[1] Kingdoms and countries have their own codes regarding what it means to be a good citizen.

Those codes are sometimes exported. For example, if you were in the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington D.C. and saw two men holding hands, it might mean something quite different from what it would mean if you stepped outside onto International Drive and saw the same thing. The culture inside the embassy has been imported.

The letter we are looking at today was written to people who lived, worked, and played in an exported culture. They lived in Philippi, a Grecian city named for Alexander the Great’s father but made a Roman colony by Octavian and Marc Antony 90 years earlier. By the commonest land/sea route, Philippi was about 800 miles from Rome, yet Philippi operated according to Roman law, followed Roman customs, and was home to Roman people.

America once knew all about colonial life. If you had come to Manhattan in 1640, you would have found people living by Dutch laws, following Dutch customs, and eating Dutch foods, even though Amsterdam was almost 4,000 miles away. Had you traveled east to the St. Lawrence, you would have found people speaking French, following French customs, and flying the French flag. Twenty years later, the English defeated the Dutch, New Amsterdam was renamed New York, and the Union Jack floated over the city. Dutch culture faded and was gradually replaced by English culture.

What does any of this have to do with the church? The image of the church we are looking at today is that of a colony, a pocket within mainstream society where a different culture flourishes. The church is a kingdom of God colony that operates by different rules (the commands of Jesus), speaks a different language (the language of love), and honors different things (faith, hope, and love).

To enter the church from the majority culture is like walking into the Bangladeshi Embassy from International Drive in D.C. Here people speak differently, have different customs, hold different values, and engage in different practices. The church may feel strange to people coming in from the outside, but it is (or should be) an exciting and inviting strangeness.

It is strange because people show respect to each other. It is strange because people are interested in others, not just in what others can do for them. Strange because people go out of their way to help each other and expect nothing in return. Strange because the usual markers of status – clothing, cars, education, income – are less important than faith, hope, and love.

It is also (and chiefly) strange because people love their leader and are fiercely loyal to him. They talk about him, talk to him, and regularly praise him. Their leader is Jesus. He is at the center of everything these people do and care about. That is bound to feel strange to outsiders but, when they see the quality of lives and relationships in the church, they might conclude that preoccupation with Jesus is a good thing.

Nevertheless, being different can be awkward. It can produce anxiety. It can also bring conflict. That is clear in our text, Philippians 1:27-30. Let’s read it: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

Usually, when Paul instructs people to live a certain way (as he does here), he employs a particular metaphor. He tells people, for example, to “walk” – by which he means “go about daily life” – in “love” or to “walk in the Spirit,” or to “walk in wisdom,” and so on. Walking is his go-to metaphor for Christian conduct, which makes his choice not to use it in this passage striking.

Here he uses a word that appears nowhere else in his letters (though once in a recorded conversation), a word he chose (I believe) because Philippi was a Roman colony and people born there were Roman citizens. He uses a word that means “to conduct oneself as a citizen.” Paul expected the church to be to heaven what Philippi was to Rome: a colony.

He emphasizes two aspects of colonial living. The first is the responsibility of the colonists to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel they proclaim. So, what would it mean for the Philippians – or, for that matter, for us – to act in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ?

Well, think about the gospel. In it, we learn that Christ died for our sins. How do we live in a way that is worthy of that? For one thing, we to refuse to take sin lightly, which is something the prevailing culture is always doing. People magazine once published a Sindex – a decidedly lighthearted index of sins. At the time, people ranked child abuse, murder and spying against one’s country as the worst sins. Parking in a handicap spot also ranked way up there, but many others (sexual sins are an example) were ranked as trivial.[2]

But when sin is taken lightly, it comes back to haunt us. Consider sexual sin. Hollywood sexualizes everyone, even children. Now, sexual sin is Hollywood’s open wound. Or racism, which was in many circles a matter of jest, but now threatens to divide our nation. Greed is a sin we easily overlook, as long as it doesn’t hurt our bottom line. But we will not overlook it when it ruins our economy, which it threatens to do. Citizens of the kingdom take sin seriously. They don’t make excuses. They make changes.

But Christ not only died for sins, he died for people. So, another way we live consistently with the gospel of Christ is by treating people as important. No one in the colony is disposable. I recall reading what a Colombian paramilitary squad member once said about the street kids in Bogota: “Killing these kids is like killing lice. We call them ‘the disposables.’” In the colony, there are no disposables.

Living in a way that is consistent with the gospel means we treat people with respect. We listen to them. In the predominant culture, people may treat the poor, the intellectually disabled, the incarcerated, and the “other” like lice, but we treat others like Jesus treats us: as people made and loved by God.

When it comes to living the gospel, there is much more to unpack, but because of time I’ll mention just one thing. The gospel, according to Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15, reports that Christ died for our sins, was buried and was, on the third day raised from the dead. Raised from the dead. How do we balance our lives with the truth of resurrection?

Negatively stated, we absolutely refuse to give death the last word. We won’t let the fear of death control us. When the doctor says, “Cancer” (or something equally frightening), we know that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to us. We won’t hand death, nor those who wield it, that kind of power.

Positively stated, we dare to trust God because we believe Jesus rose on the third day. We believe in the resurrection. Since every wrong will be righted and every right will be rewarded, we can do the hard thing. As Carlo Carretto put it: We forgive our enemy, feed the hungry, and defend the weak because we believe in the resurrection. We have the courage to marry, to have children, and to build a home because we believe in the resurrection.[3] We let go of revenge because we believe in the resurrection. We spend money for the ages, not just for the moment, because we believe in the resurrection.

If we conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the gospel, we will find ourselves out of step with the predominate culture, where power, not love, is thought to be supreme; where pleasure, not purpose, is the thing to seek; where personal safety, not the salvation of others, is the received wisdom. We live differently.

But people who are different are disparaged. When we renounce the selfish, sexualized, pleasure-seeking lifestyle that is contrary to the gospel; when we insist that God’s kingdom is more important than the economy; when we announce that King Jesus is more powerful than any president or prime minister, we call down on ourselves the contempt of the society around us.

There is a reason the Bible warns that following Jesus, like going off to war, is dangerous. St. Paul echoes Jesus here and elsewhere when he tells Christians to expect antagonism. St. Peter does the same. These warnings make sense when we grasp the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that Jesus is the Lord and king who is reclaiming his kingdom from the powers of evil – some human but others that predate humanity and transcend it. There is a war going on. We enlisted when we joined King Jesus, so we need to be brave. The second aspect of colony life Paul emphasizes is the responsibility to fight for king and kingdom.

A few years ago we had a man from the community, a man I like and appreciate, join us for a Sunday service. During the worship time, we sang a song with the lyrics: “It is time for battle, it’s time for war, as we sing Hosanna, as we praise the Lord. He will still the accuser, crush the enemy, as we celebrate God’s victory,” and he was offended. It sounded to him like we were espousing violence. He has never come back.

I’m sad about that. But this is war. The stakes are incredibly high. But my friend misunderstood. We do not espouse violence. “Though we live in the world” – as a kingdom of heaven colony on earth (this is St. Paul from 2 Corinthians 10) – “we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

The world uses violence. We use love. The world is armed with lies. We are armed with truth. The world issues threats. We offer God’s promises. The world wields scorn. We present praise. The world sacrifices others. We sacrifice ourselves. We don’t wage war as the world does.

Now don’t miss the fact that it is “for the faith of the gospel” that we strive together (verse 27). This is not waging war with non-Christians over political issues or with Christians over church practices. The real fight is always for the lordship of Jesus.

Politics is not a hill I’m willing to die on. But Calvary is. The real fight is always for the lordship of Jesus. Forget that and we will be outflanked and overrun. We fight and, if necessary, we die for the faith of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who died for us.

We will not, however (and this is something my offended friend did not comprehend), kill for the faith of the gospel. That is not how this war is waged. Jesus won the war not by killing his enemies but by sacrificing himself. He died to save them, not to destroy them.

Paul’s words in verse 28, (“stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one man for the faith of the gospel”) picture a Roman phalanx, a battle formation in which the outside rows of soldiers locked shields and every soldier protected those around him. They were invulnerable as long as they remained in formation. The danger was that they would lose their nerve and go “every man for himself.” That is our danger too.

That’s why Paul (verse 29) writes, “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” This passage teaches that Christians not only rely on God but on each other. Christians who break formation – who are not rightly related to the church – are not only vulnerable, they have placed their brothers and sisters at risk.

We mustn’t let ourselves be intimidated. When people who don’t love Jesus call us bigots, we mustn’t worry. We just prove them wrong. When they say we are naïve and unscientific, we mustn’t let them intimidate us. We just earn advanced degrees. When they tell us our faith is a fantasy, we mustn’t fear. Attacks like these will come, and many more beside. And, when they do, we must stand close and protect each other.

We can afford to be gentle. We can afford to be kind. We can afford to love our enemies. We are people of the gospel: we know that God will not forsake us. But we must be brave.

I like the story of the Christian who was taken captive by the forces of Julian the Apostate. It was during the middle years of the fourth century. Christians were being hounded, captured, and tormented. This man was caught by Julian’s troops and tortured. When the soldiers got tired of beating and brutalizing him, they tried to humiliate him. One of them, dripping with malice, asked him: “Where now is your carpenter God?”

To which the man, dripping with blood, replied: “Where now is my carpenter God? He is building a coffin for your emperor.”[4]

We must be brave. Our bravery does two things. First, it helps our comrades. When we stand steady, it helps them stand with us. So, Paul says that our fearlessness is a sign – a sign other Christians can read, a banner unfurled before them – that God will not abandon us but will come to our rescue.

But that banner is also unfurled before those who stand against us. When we remain undaunted before threats, before insults, and accusations, we send a clear signal to those who hate Jesus that their side is going to lose and they would be wise to come over to Jesus.  

Now all this talk of war, of being insulted and mocked, may be a little much for you. I understand that. Perhaps when you signed up, someone gave you the impression that it is all smooth sailing until you dock in that heavenly port. Maybe you are not sure you are willing to suffer for Jesus’s sake.

Look at verse 29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” I was on a prayer retreat a few years ago and had gone off into the woods with my Greek New Testament, where I was reading Philippians 1. When I came to this verse, the fact that the word the NIV translates “granted” carries the idea of a gift really struck me. Suffering for Jesus is a gift.

It may not seem like a gift at the time. I have a friend whose high school basketball team played Larry Bird’s high school team. They got killed. But now he can say, “I played against Larry Bird,” and he feels honored by the opportunity.

But think of the honor afforded to the men, women, and children who suffer humiliation, pain, unbelievable loss, and death for Jesus. They got killed. But in heaven they will say, “Suffering for Jesus has been the greatest gift of my life.” And when they say that, Jesus, their hero, their savior, their friend, will be standing with them.

We are heaven’s colony. We are the people of Jesus. We are different. Don’t be afraid to let the world know it.

[1] Illustrations from

[2] Adapted from Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2016), pages 193-194; original source: People (2-10-86)

[3] Carlo Carretto in “Blessed Are You Who Believed.” Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 4.

[4] R. Geoffrey Brown, “Look! A Great White Horse!” Preaching Today, Tape No. 111.

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Humility: The Path Along Which All Spiritual Growth Proceeds

Jeremy Taylor was one of the most influential teachers and theologians of the 17th century. His influence reaches our day through writers like Geroge Macdonald andC. S. Lewis. His two most famous works are The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. My son Kevin recently showed me some of his instructions from Holy Living on the subject of humility.

Since humility is the path along which all spiritual growth proceeds, and since “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” true humility is of greater worth than gold. Taylor makes the following suggestions for anyone who would live in the “grace of humility.”

To begin with, we need to understand that “Humility consists in a realistic opinion of yourself, namely that you are an unworthy person.” For the self-esteem generation, this assertion cannot help but seem misguided and even harmful. It is perhaps the most difficult advice Jeremy Taylor gives on the subject – and the most important.

When Taylor says we are “unworthy,” he does not mean we are worthless. Far from it: our worth is incalculable. When he says we are unworthy, he means that we have done nothing and can do nothing to merit the value God has placed on us. Until I see this is so, I will always be trying to prove myself worthy by my strength, my intelligence, my kindness or even my spirituality. I cannot “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) while at the same time trying to prove myself. It is impossible.

The sincerely-held belief that I am unworthy is foundational to true humility. But Taylor warns us that we must be content for other people to consider us unworthy as well. “You would be a hypocrite to think lowly of yourself, but then expect others to think highly of you.”

Another helpful instruction is this: “Nurture a love to do good things in secret … Be content to go without praise … Remember, no one can undervalue you if you know that you are unworthy.”

Then this gem: “Never be ashamed of your birth, of your parents, of your occupation, or your present employment…” When I was young and had only followed the Master for a short time, I think I had, at what time or another, been ashamed of all these things. Such shame is the companion of pride and the enemy of humility.

Along with this: “Never say anything, directly or indirectly, that will provoke praise or elicit complements from others. Do not let your praise be the intended end of what you say.” And when you are praised, “take it indifferently and return it to God. Always give God thanks for making you an instrument of his glory for the benefit of others.”

The old Anglican divine knew how devious pride is (or rather, how devious we are in nursing our pride), and so he warns: “Do not ask others your faults with the intent or purpose being to have others tell you of your good qualities.” He calls this “fishing for compliments” and condemns it outright, warning those who do so will end up “drinking the waters of vanity” until they burst.

Taylor goes on to warn his readers against entertaining “the devil’s whispers of pride … Some people spend their time dreaming of greatness, envisioning theaters full of people applauding them, imagining themselves giving engaging speeches, fantasizing great wealth.” This is “nothing but the fumes of pride, exposing their heart’s true wishes.”

Another very helpful piece of advice: “Take an active part in the praising of others, entertaining their good with delight. In no way should you give in to the desire to disparage them, or lessen their praise, or make any objection. You should never think that hearing the good report of another in any way lessens your worth.”

“The truly humble person,” Taylor points out, “will not only look admirably at the strengths of others, but will also look with great forgiveness upon the weaknesses of others.”

A further help to humility is this: Instead of hiding our weaknesses and pretending that we have none, Taylor counsels, “Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have. Accept it as a favor of God, and instrument to resist pride and nurture humility.” In line with this, he warns his reader “not to expose others’ weaknesses in order to make them feel less able than you.”

There are many other helpful instructions from this wise teacher of another era, but I will share but one more: “Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop. That is, humility is increased by exercising it.”

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The Role of Desire in the Religious Life

Desire plays an important role in life. If it were not for desire, the human race would not propagate. God made humans in such a way that they need, and are capable of experiencing, desire.

Desire is also important in the religious life, though its role is seen in vastly different ways, depending on the religion espoused. In Buddhism, if I understand it correctly, desire (or longing) is regarded as the principal cause of suffering. Desire is the fetter that binds people and keeps them from reaching enlightenment.

The Christian view on desire is nuanced. The King James word for it is “lust,” which frequently refers to inappropriate and destructive desires (like the desire to have another person’s spouse), but occasionally refers to appropriate and healthy desires. Jesus, for example, “eagerly desired” – the word regularly translated as “lusted” – “to eat the Passover” meal with his disciples.

Buddhism approaches desire or longing as something to renounce and eventually eliminate by following the eight-fold path. There are many points of contact for Christians and Buddhists along the eight-fold path, though their underlying assumptions will be at odds and will inevitably lead them in different directions.

Christians are never asked to make a universal renunciation of desire. Such a renunciation would be counterproductive. Instead, they are told to “put to death evil desires” while cultivating healthy ones. While they know that desire can fetter a person to a life of lovelessness and suffering, they also believe that desire can be a springboard into a life full of love and contentment. They don’t want to get rid of their desires, they want to transform them.

If it were possible to take an X-ray of all our desires – to see them the way a radiologist sees fractures and growths – we could pretty accurately diagnose our spiritual health and prognosticate our spiritual futures, apart from intervention. Fortunately, intervention by the one Christians call the Great Physician is always possible.

This intervention occurs at a level we cannot reach, rather as gene therapy operates on a level we cannot reach. Christians believe that God is able and willing to work at the origination point of desire, actually giving and shaping the desires of their hearts. The Christian then cooperates with these deep-level operations in practices that cultivate and bring to fruition these new desires.

These practices are sometimes referred to as spiritual disciplines. They fall into two principal categories: those that put to death “evil desires” and those that cultivate God-given desires. It is common to talk about these as the disciplines of “abstinence” and of “engagement.” Both are important.

Among the disciplines of abstinence, which help people “put to death evil desires,” are solitude, silence, secrecy (that is, not broadcasting our good or religious deeds in order to win admiration), and fasting. These practices enable a person to discern unhealthy desires. On a more fundamental level, they enable people to understand that they are more than their desires, something that is urgently needed in contemporary culture.

The disciplines of engagement, which aid in the cultivation of God-given desires, include worship, Bible reading, prayer, acts of humble service, and fellowship (or “soul friendship,” as it has been called). The value of these disciplines resides, in part, in the way they increase the intensity and staying power of God-given desires.

But none of these spiritual practices, however performed, can create a desire. That is outside their scope and beyond our ability. For that to happen, people are dependent on outside intervention. They are dependent upon God.

When we understand the importance of desire and the role God’s intervention plays in it, we are ready to appreciate the insight of the psalmist who wrote, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The psalmist is not thinking of God giving us the new car we’ve been dreaming about. He is thinking of God giving us new desires, the kind that can be fulfilled without doing harm, the kind that can lead a person to deeper love and richer contentment. The role desires play in the spiritual life, and our part in curtailing or cultivating them, is absolutely critical.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Exaggerthinking: How to Counter It

St. Paul says (Romans 12:3) to “every person” (not just to the proud): “Do not exaggerthink.” But how do we avoid it? Some of us, because of the way we were raised – and I’m not thinking of kids whose parents were always bragging on them – are predisposed to exaggerthinking. How do we stay out of the trap?

First, a look at the text where Paul raises the issue (Romans 12:3). In spite of the way dozens of translations render verse 3, Paul does not say we are to think about ourselves. What he says is: “Don’t exaggerthink but think in a way that leads to realistic thinking” (my translation). Realistic thinking can’t happen if you are only thinking about yourself. To think realistically, we must include God and others in our thoughts.

Specifically, the first way to think realistically is to think in the light of the role God has entrusted to you (verse 3). The end of verse 3 is famously difficult for translators. It’s not that the words are difficult; it’s that Paul’s meaning has been hard to uncover. What is meant by “in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you”?

Nowhere else does Paul or any other biblical writer speak of God distributing faith to people in different measures. Because of that, most commentators think that faith here must refer to “the faith, once delivered.” They say the faith is the measure (or yardstick, that’s the idea) by which we are to think of ourselves. But then it’s hard to make sense of the idea of distributing or (more precisely) apportioning the faith once delivered.

There is a third way to take it, which seems to me most likely, though linguistic support for it is slim. Occasionally, contemporaries of Paul would use the word here translated as “faith” to describe a “trust” that has been given to a person – a stewardship. Paul himself uses the word in its verb form in this way in Titus 1:2, when he writes about “the preaching entrusted to me” – that is, given to me as a trust. God has given every member of the body of Christ a trust, a role to play, a faith to keep.

I am less likely to exaggerthink if I am playing that role, honoring that trust. I have not been given every role to play – that’s not my job; I am not smart enough for that, strong enough, or skilled enough – but neither have I been given no role to play. I have been given a trust. I must keep faith with God. Awareness of that keeps me from exaggerthinking.

A second way to avoid exaggerthink is to recognize the oneness of those who belong to Christ. (This is from Romans 12:4-5.) We belong to one another. I am yours. You are mine, but not in the way a tool in mine. I am not free to use you. You are not even mine the way a treasure is mine – a cherished book or a jewel or a work of art. You are mine the way an eye or hand is mine. As Paul puts it in verse 5, we are “members of one another.”

That means if I hurt you, I hurt myself. Taking a jab at you – including a verbal one – is like poking my own eye. If I look down on you, I look down on myself – worse, I look down on Christ. We belong together. As that truth becomes settled in my mind, as it dawns on me that I am part of something bigger, I am on my way to realistic thinking and am better equipped to recognize exaggerthink.

Third, when we are using our gifts, we will naturally think more realistically. God graced each of us with a gift (verses 6-8) that will help us keep faith with him as we perform the role entrusted to us. Actually doing the work is the fastest way to get rid of exaggerthink.  

When I’m sitting on the couch watching a football game, I am prone to give advice to the quarterback and the coaches. “You’ve had that slant route all day long. The middle linebacker is dropping too far back in the zone. Can’t you see that? Why aren’t you taking advantage of it?” Then I get up for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

But if I were behind center – even if I were 30 years old again – and there were four three-hundred-pound brutes on the other side of the line itching to beat me to a pulp, I would forget all about the slant route. I’d forget the count. I’d forget my own name. Getting out and actually doing the work, whether on the field or in the church, has a wonderful way of checking exaggerthink.

These words of S. D. Gordon are worthy of consideration. “We have nothing to do with how much ability we’ve got, or how little, but with what we do with what we have. The man with great talent is apt to be puffed up” (that’s exaggerthinking) “and the man with little [talent] to belittle the little.” (More exaggerating.) But “… much or little, ‘Our part is to be faithful,’ doing the level best with every bit and scrap.”

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St. Paul told the Roman Church, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3, NIV). The NIV supplies the words “of yourself” – they are not in the Greek text – which is something like “do not overthink.”

It does not seem to me that Paul is saying, “Don’t be conceited,” although that is what most people take him to mean. If that is what he meant to say, Greek offered him the vocabulary to say it, a vocabulary he makes frequent use of elsewhere. But here he uses a different word, one he may have coined himself, since it appears nowhere else in the Bible.

To translate the word Paul coined, I had to coin one myself. So here is the Looper translation: “For through the grace given to me I tell every one of you not to exaggerthink…”This doesn’t necessarily refer to thinking you are more important than other people. A person who exaggerthinks may be quite humble but her mind inflates what she can do, what she is called to do, and makes her responsible for how everything turns out.

People who exaggerthink often take on more than they should, robbing other people of service opportunities and wearing themselves out in the process. That is exaggerthinking.

The exaggerthinker is liable to assume that the truth he sees is the whole truth, which makes it difficult for him to listen to other people. But only God sees the whole truth. He has 360-degree vision. We don’t.

But we do see parts, and when we stop exaggerthinking, we realize that other people see parts too. In giving us the body of Christ, God has broadened our vision. The body of Christ sees more than any one person can see. As such, the whole body of Christ (and not just the individual) is needed to discern the whole will of God. It is only “together with all the saints” that we “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:18).

One of the biggest problems with exaggerthinking is that it leaves us believing that it all depends on me. When I exaggerthink, even though I am fully aware of my sins and weaknesses, even though I don’t mean to do so and would scoff at the very idea, I cast myself in the role of savior. It would be comical if it were not so painful.

The exaggerthinker believes it’s up to him to save the church, save the business, save the relationship, save the family, save the truth. No one else will do it. Perhaps no one else can do it. Unless I do it, it won’t get done.

People who think like this end up like Elijah: depressed, anxious, shame-bearing, and alone. Remember what was going over and over in his mind? “It’s all up to me and I’m not up to the task. My best is not enough. I’m a failure. I just want to die.” To which God said (in effect), “Elijah, you and I need to have a talk. But just so you know, I have plenty of people who are ready to help. You’re not the only one. It doesn’t all depend on you.”

Listen: we already have a savior. We don’t need to be one. It is not all up to you or me and it never has been. God has resources we know nothing about.

All of us exaggerthink at times, in one way or another. I say that as one who has often engaged in it. You may say, “I don’t do that. I know I’m a nobody.” But that is exaggerthinking in a negative direction—just the kind of thing Elijah was doing, and it was ruining his life. It will ruin yours too. It will rob you of joy. It will make it impossible for you to trust God. And it will separate you from others.

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Falwell and Evangelicalism’s Theological Confusion

Evangelicalism has a problem: Evangelicals.

It is not a new problem. Evangelicals have been giving evangelicalism a bad name for years. The disconnect between the gospel proclaimed by prominent evangelicals and the lifestyle exhibited by them sometimes is impossible to ignore.

The scandals associated with such names as Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Jim and Tammy Bakker and many others follow the familiar road of greed, sex, and power. It’s not like these people didn’t know better. These are issues Jesus and his apostles addressed.

These moral failures point to an underlying problem that is not merely ethical but theological. The latest scandal involving Jerry Falwell, Jr., is a case in point.

Falwell, Jr. was, until recently, the president of Liberty University, which was founded by his famous televangelist father. During Falwell, Jr.’s tenure, Liberty saw student enrollment increase phenomenally, making it the largest school in the country. Falwell’s name recognition has also increased in recent years, in large part because of his political activism. Falwell has become one of the most familiar names in evangelicalism.

When candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign sought the highly prized support of evangelicals, the first place they turned was Liberty University. Ted Cruz launched his campaign there. Falwell allowed him to announce his candidacy from the Liberty Campus arena and even required the student body to attend.

It looked as if Cruz had the inside lane on evangelical support but then, in an unexpected move, Falwell endorsed Donald Trump. Interviews followed. Speaking engagements. Falwell called candidate Trump “a man who … can lead our country to greatness again.” Photo ops with the candidate followed. At one point, according to Falwell, Mr. Trump discussed with him the possibility of serving as the United States Secretary of Education.

All I knew about Jerry Falwell, Jr. prior to his highly publicized endorsement of Donald Trump, was that Liberty University had grown wildly in just a few years under his leadership. With regard to the academic health of the university, this seemed reckless to me. Then began the trickle of reports of questionable behavior, which grew into a stream, and then a cataract.

Mr. Falwell insists that he has been targeted by the Left because of his support of President Trump. I don’t doubt that he is right. He painted the target on his own back when he threw his support to Mr. Trump in 2016. But he has no call to complain. He is the one who gave his opponents their ammunition.

I sensed there was a problem when Falwell defended himself against accusations of hypocrisy by saying, “I have never been a pastor.” He seemed to suggest that only pastors are expected to live by biblical standards of holiness. He has repeated this kind of thing a number of times, most recently around the time of his resignation.

Falwell’s misunderstanding exposes a theological fault that runs through evangelicalism: the false idea, as Christopher Wright puts it, that “there can be a belief of faith separate from the life of faith; that people can be saved by something that goes on in their heads without worrying too much about what happens in their lives.”

This belief persists in evangelicalism despite the abundance of biblical teaching against it, in both Old and New Testaments. St. Paul himself, who never budged from his insistence that people are saved by grace through faith, absolutely refused to divide faith from life. He characterized his life work as bringing about “the obedience of faith .. among all the nations.”

The divide between faith and life – whether in Jerry Falwell, Jr. or in any of us – is one reason so many people find it hard to take seriously the claims of Jesus Christ. As Wright said, “the moral state of those who claim to be God’s people … is a major hindrance to the mission we claim to have on [Christ’s] behalf.”

“The obedience of faith” in not a matter for pastors only, as Mr. Falwell implied, but for everyone who claims to belong to Christ. The world will not judge the church on the basis of its statement of faith, but on the quality of its life.

(First published by Gatehouse Media.)

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Spiritual Gifts and the Church

(from the Sermon: Body of Christ -pt. 1, 1 Cor. 12. Starts at 24:34 – 50:00.)

When it comes to the use of spiritual gifts, we often think in terms of serving the church. We talk about serving the church by teaching Sunday School or becoming a trustee, which promotes the idea that God gives us gifts so we can serve the church.

Well, yes; that’s true. But we mustn’t miss the more important reason God gave us gifts: to serve the Lord Jesus. The gifts are not, first of all, so that individuals can serve the church but so that the church can serve the savior. The purpose of the gifts, as we will see in the coming weeks, is to make possible through us the actions of the Son by the Spirit to fulfill the intentions of the Father.

When people think solely in terms of serving the church, they often feel their part is small and not especially important. Or they think that their part goes unnoticed and start feeling they are being taken for granted. Either way, that kind of thing is hard to avoid when we think that what we are doing is all for the church.

It is better (and more in line with Scripture) not to think we are doing something for the church but that we are the church doing something for the Lord. We are not functioning for the body, as if we were not a part of it. We are the body.

Third, notice the wording of verse 7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Paul does not say that each gift – whether prophecy or tongues or service or teaching – is given for the common good, but the “manifestation of the Spirit” is given for the common good. What blesses a church, transforms an individual, makes a Sunday School class life-changing, encourages the discouraged and upholds the floundering is not the gift but the God who gives it. The gift is given so that the manifestation of the Spirit can occur; that is, so that God can show up among us. That’s why our focus shouldn’t be on the gift but on the Giver.

Finally, this passage (and the sum of the teaching on the Body of Christ) makes it abundantly clear that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. It is not all up to you or to me. But by design at least one thing is up to you and up to me. We can’t do everything. We needn’t do everything. We shouldn’t do everything. But we can do something, need to do something, and ought to do something. Verse 11 teaches that the Spirit has given a gift to each of us. Each of us. And each gift is given for a purpose. Each gift counts. Each has a place in Jesus’s operation through the church.

On a July night in 1969, our family was finishing out a vacation. I came in from a motel pool just in time to watch – can you guess (July 1969)? – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of the lunar module and walk – and jump – across the surface of the moon.

The pilot for that historic flight was Michael Collins. He said, “All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of people… All you see are the three of us, but underneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others.” It’s been estimated that there were about 400,000 people who helped in some way on the Apollo 11 mission.

There were radio telescope operators and parachute designers. There were 17,000 engineers. There were mechanics, soldiers, and contractors who set up the missile for launch. There were guys in Houston monitoring how much fuel the lunar module was using during descent. There was a 24-year-old “computer whiz kid” who worked through software glitches in real time. There were programmers who wrote the code. Approximately 500 people worked on the space suits, including a seamstress who said, “We didn’t worry too much until the guys on the moon started jumping up and down.”

All those people. No wonder Neil Armstrong said that when he stepped onto the moon he thought about the thousands of people who made that step possible.

None of us can do it all, any more than Neil Armstrong could fly to the moon on his own. But we do need to do our part, just like that seamstress. (Imagine if she hadn’t done her part!) When we do our part, something amazing happens, which Paul calls “the manifestation of the Spirit.” God shows up. And when he does, good things happen.

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