God is Beautiful

(My good friend Michael Wickey, a computer programmer (who was raised Amish!) and a terrific guy, wrote this devotional and shared it with our church’s diaconate. I asked if I could share it with you. I hope you enjoy!)

I sometimes lose sight of or don’t think often enough about this idea; that God is beautiful. Not only is he beautiful, he himself loves beauty. Ubiquitous with the idea of beauty are, sunrises, sunsets, mountain landscapes, Caribbean beaches, clear blue water, massive glaciers, grazing herds of bison, or a cute and cuddly kitten, but I think, if God loves beautiful things, then he loves all these things too. But first, let me backup a little bit. How do I get to the conclusion that God loves beauty?

Well, there are many reasons, but one that just came to me this week was the sacrifice of Jesus, who died while still sinless, who took our just punishment, and rose again on the 3rd day. Yes, that alone is beautiful. Not much stacks up to the beauty of sacrifice. Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But how does that make me think God loves beauty? There is much more that could be explored here because Jesus died for those who persecuted him as well as his friends, but for now my point only concerns the beauty of sacrifice.

We were made in God’s image. He knows us inside and out, and even with the fall, we carry a lot of Him within us. He knew what could bring us back to him. Beauty, and namely his (this is only one aspect and I’m only covering this one, for my point.). Beautiful things are a source of gravity, though it is the type of gravity that can be denied, they pull and change the things they act upon. A real world example is playing with a kitten when in a sour mood, or being around people with overflowing joyfulness. It is really hard to stay the same while encountering beautiful things. Either we need to leave and possibly even hide from the beautiful thing, or we will be changed by it.

Beauty is somehow wrapped up in the essence of God and a sense of it was imparted on all His creation, and since we are made in His image, we can also do more and change more through it. By this I mean that we have the ability to actively foster beauty and to let ourselves be changed by it.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” – Psalm 19:1-4

The Gospel is beautiful, and it will change us if we recognize it (this does not negate us choosing), but it can also be denied which also changes us. Denying its beauty is only done if we use a different standard of beauty, namely our own, which is worthless (since we are mere fallen humans as opposed to the Creator God, our creations necessarily fall short)  in comparison and will lead us to nothing or rather nothingness.

Why and how does this particular beauty change us? My wife Jenny theorized that “it is our natural longing to become what we are meant to be, and we, who recognize the Gospel, know that this goal is to be like Jesus!”

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” – Romans 8:29

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” – 1 John 3:2

“One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” – Psalm 27:4 This connection didn’t seem like a lot at first, but it makes me feel closer to Jesus, though this is only a feeling because Jesus is never far, but it is not nothing. It is a feeling of confident peace. A good and confident feeling, a solid and steadfast heart are forces that carry a soldier into battle and fireman into a burning building. I need that feeling of closeness in order to overcome some obstacles and challenges, and I love the thought of standing there on my back porch, with steaming coffee in hand, watching the sunrise while the birds chirp, with Jesus!

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The Day the Church Was Born (Acts 2)

Approximately 23 minutes

We are looking today at Acts 2, which recounts the origins of the Church. When God poured out his Spirit on the 120 Jesus-followers who had gathered in Jerusalem, they went from being friends and associates with a shared history to being the church of Jesus Christ with a shared, eternal future.

The same Spirit that was in Peter was now in Mary Magdalene. The Spirit in John was in Cleopas. The Spirit in Matthew was in Mary the mother of Jesus. These people who had long known each other were suddenly together in a way they had never been before. They were united. The Spirit of God was coordinating their thoughts and actions. They had become the church.

This is one of the epoch-making moments in the history of the world. It marked the threshold of earth’s last era and triggered the transformation (or evolution, if you prefer) of humanity into a new kind of existence. To material beings of the animal kingdom, the homo sapiens sapiens, was added the divine Spirit. This would prepare humans for resurrection and life in the age to come, but it also connected them to each other in the present.

As I was exegeting this passage and preparing to preach it, I outlined it in five parts. We have: What Happened: The Event (vv. 1-4); What Was Going On: The Setting (vv. 5-13); What it Meant: The Sermon (vv. 14-35); What to Do About It: The Application (vv. 36-41); and What Resulted: The Church (vv. 42-47). That could be unpacked for hours, but since we don’t have that long, let’s get to it by looking at what happened.

It was the day of Pentecost, the celebration known as the Feast of Weeks. It was called Pentecost because it took place 50 days after the Feast of Firstfruits. (Pentecost is Greek for 50.) Jesus’s apostles, along with more than a hundred of his followers had been together much of those 50 days – ever since the resurrection.

On the day of the feast, they were together – perhaps in the same upper room where they had gathered on the night before Jesus was betrayed. The house where they stayed must have been near the temple because only houses in the temple district were large enough to accommodate so many people.

The giving of the Spirit was accompanied by three extraordinary phenomena. There was the unaccountable sound of a violent wind. There was the astonishing sight of something that looked like a flame of fire appearing above the head of every person present. And there was amazing testimony as the people began speaking in languages they did not know, enabled by the Spirit that was within them.

That is what happened. In verses 5-13, Luke pans out a little and gives us the setting in which this took place. When people came to find out what was making the strange wind-like sound, they heard a second strange sound: Jesus’s people were talking about God in fifteen different languages! They asked, “Aren’t these people all Galileans?” Galileans were known for their distinct way of speaking. We would say they had an accent. A linguist would say they dropped laryngeals and aspirates.[1] But the foreigners said, “They’re speaking my language!”

Notice what they spoke (v. 11): the wonders (or, as the Greek has it, the great things) of God. Very often in Scripture, and nearly always in Luke’s writings, the Holy Spirit is associated with the way people speak. Some bible students say the evidence that a person is filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues. But the Bible goes beyond that: the evidence is speaking in love. Someone who speaks in tongues on Sunday and speaks with contempt on Monday is not someone who is filled with the Spirit.

Most of the people who heard the disciples were amazed. (In fact, Luke uses three different Greek words in this passage to indicate wonder or amazement.) But some just mocked them and said they’d had one too many. Perhaps they were, like the apostles, Galileans, who didn’t hear the dropped laryngeals and aspirates. It is the people who think they know you who frequently miss what you are saying.

Notice that the Spirit’s presence in the disciples led people to ask questions. Jesus’s people were different. They still are. People ought to be asking questions about us: our generosity, our fearlessness, our love for each other, our honesty, kindness, hopefulness.

There is something else to understand about what is happening here, but we will miss it if we are not familiar with the Old Testament. After God created human beings, he appointed them to rule the world as his regents. But humans (this is Genesis 3) turned away from God – theologians call it “the Fall” – and everything began falling apart (that is Genesis 4-11).

When we arrive at Genesis 11, we see how bad things have become. The people of the city of Babel are constructing a ziggurat – a kind of temple – to reach heaven. They are trying to force their way into God’s place – into authority and power – without God. At Babel, God brought that attempt to an end by scattering the people and confusing their languages. No longer would people be able to understand each other – a loss that has impoverished and divided humanity.

But at Pentecost, God began to reverse the scattering. People from fifteen different nations heard and understood each other. Many came to share the same Spirit. What was lost in the world was being reintroduced in the church, which from the beginning has been a multi-national, multi-lingual, ethnically diverse people—and yet united. The scattering of humanity is being undone within the church of Jesus Christ.

So, the disciples heard the surprising sound of a strong, rushing wind in the house where they were meeting. The sound was so loud that people outside the house heard it too. The Christians then saw what looked like a flame of fire resting above one another’s heads and, when they spoke, it was in languages they had never learned. This took place on Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits. Visitors who were in town for the feast heard the disciples declaring the praises of God in their own languages.

That’s what happened. But what did it mean? The Apostle Peter answers that question. He begins by saying what it does not mean. It does not mean that we’re drunk. With good humor he adds, “It’s only nine in the morning!”

What it does mean is that the last days are upon us (v. 17). God is keeping his word through the prophet Joel and is pouring out his Spirit on all people, not just on kings, prophets, and judges. This, as Peter says down in verse 33, is what you now see and hear. The last days have begun.

But why now? Why didn’t it happen in the prophet Joel’s time? Why didn’t it happen in our time? Why now? Peter’s answer is: because of Jesus. Everything changed with the coming of Jesus. He is the hinge on which the door of history turns.

Peter says that “Jesus was a man accredited to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did … through him” (v. 22). In the ancient world, when teachers came to a new community, they brought with them letters of introduction from shared acquaintances or from well-known people. Jesus’s letter of introduction came from God himself, and was written in miracles, wonders, and signs.

And how, Peter asks boldly, did you receive him? You (v. 33), with the help of wicked men (literally lawless men, that is, gentiles), “put him to death by nailing him to a cross.” But God, Peter said, knew this would happen and incorporated your rejection into his plan. Then he raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (v. 24). Peter uses a remarkable metaphor here. The word for agony is the common word for birth pangs. The agony of death turned out to be the birth pangs of the new humanity.

As proof that God raised Jesus from the dead, Peter quotes Psalm 16. It was written by Jesus’s great ancestor King David about a thousand years earlier. In the poem we have the line, “my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead (“sheol” in Hebrew, “hades” in Greek) nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (vv. 26, 27; Ps. 16:9-10).

Peter goes on to argue that King David died a long time ago – everyone knows where his grave is – and his body did decay. David could not have been referring to himself in Psalm 16. No, he was speaking prophetically of the Messiah – a prophecy God fulfilled by raising Jesus from the dead.

And it was this Jesus, raised from the dead and exalted to the place of honor at God’s right hand, this Jesus who is both Lord of all and Messiah of the Jews (v. 36), who is responsible for the events on the day of Pentecost. He has sent the Holy Spirit on the church and launched the final epoch of earth’s history. Jesus is the key to everything.

So far, we have seen what happened (the event), what was going on at the time (the setting), what it meant (Peter’s sermon). In verses 37-40 we see what to do about it (the application).

When people realized what Peter was saying and understood that he was speaking truth, they were aghast. They had killed the Messiah God sent to rescue them. They had got rid of the only person who could help them. Luke says they were “cut to the heart” when they heard this and asked Peter and the apostles what they should do” (v. 37). Was it too late? Were they destined for ruin because they had not recognized their Messiah?

Peter holds out hope for them. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 38). Now, hold on. I thought all you needed to do was believe, but Peter says, “Repent and be baptized.” Well, it is clear to me that Peter’s hearers did believe, otherwise they would not have asked what they should do. Repentance and baptism are not a substitute for, nor an add-on to, belief; they are the outworking of it.

In repentance, a person rethinks his life and makes changes so that he can align himself or herself with what is true. Repentance is that moment when I realize that the road I am on is not going the direction I need to go. Unless I am a fool, I will get off that road and find another. There is nothing meritorious about repentance. It is not some admirable achievement on my part. It is, in fact, a gift of God.

But what about baptism? Back in verse 21, Peter said (quoting Joel) that if people call on the Lord’s name they will be saved. Here he is telling them how to call: by being baptized in Jesus’ name. Ananias used very similar language when he said to Saul (who would later be Paul): “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16).

Some of Peter’s hearers would have been upset. In Judaism, baptism was normally reserved for pagan Gentiles who were converting.  The idea that pious Jews needed to be baptized was offensive. What would people think?

But Peter offers no alternative. He requires, as Craig Keener put it, a “public, radical testimony of conversion, not a private, noncommittal request for salvation.”[2] It’s not that a person cannot be baptized privately – the Ethiopian in Acts 8 was – but never as a way of avoiding that public, radical testimony of faith in Christ.

This baptism is “in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 38). Because of this verse, some churches do not baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Jesus instructed in Matthew 28, but only in the name of Jesus. I think that is an error. When Peter tells them to be baptized in the name of Jesus, he is indicating what kind of baptism it is and differentiating it from other ancient ceremonial washings. He is not giving a ritual formula to be spoken over the person being baptized. If that were the case, he would have used the active, and not the passive, voice.[3]

We have seen what happened on the day the church was born, what was going on at the time, what it meant, and what to do about it. In verses 42-47 we see what resulted from it. United by God’s Spirit, people were hungry to know about God, and so they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (v. 42). That happens when people are filled with God’s Spirit.

They were also hungry to be together. In verses 42-47, the NIV uses the word “together” three times. The disciples were devoted to the fellowship and its shared meals. They looked out for each other’s needs. Some people insist that the mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues (and that certainly happened in verse 4 and was wonderful), but the more definitive indicator is what we have in these verses: a longing to know God in Christ and a love and affection for his people.

Now, let’s put this all in context, and then we’ll look to see how it applies to us. Acts 2 describes the day the church was born. This is an historic, never to be repeated event, like the death and resurrection of Christ. We do not read again of the sound of a violent wind or the sight of flames of fire, and only once more in Acts do we read of people speaking in tongues, and that was when Gentiles were brought into the church.

This day was unique, but that does not mean that being filled with the Holy Spirit is unique. That happens repeatedly in the Book of Acts, though without the accompanying signs, and it can also happen repeatedly in our lives. When it does, things are always different.

For example (and we see this in our text), under the influence of the Spirit, a person will alter the way he or she speaks. There is a strong link in Scripture, and especially in the two books Luke wrote, between the presence of God’s Spirit and the way a person talks. Speaking in other tongues is the most obvious example (v. 4), but people filled with the Spirit also praise God (v. 11, and in Luke 1:67ff; 10:21) and prophesy (v. 16), and witness (4:8ff; Luke 12:11-12).

What they don’t do is gossip. Or grumble. Paul tells the Ephesians not to let unwholesome (literally, “rotten”) speech come out of their mouths (4:29), and in the very next verse warns them not to grieve the Holy Spirit. A few verses later, he unpacks what he means by rotten speech: shameful and foolish talk, obscenities, and coarse joking (Eph. 5:4). People who are filled with the Spirit don’t talk that way, but they do speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and they give thanks to God for everything (Eph. 5:18-20).

There is some disagreement in the church over whether speaking in tongues is the required proof of the presence of the Spirit. For various biblical reasons, I think it is not, but speech clearly is important. Just don’t limit it to “other tongues.” How you speak in your native tongue is an even more significant indicator of the Spirit’s fullness or absence in your life. At least, more space in the biblical writings is devoted to it.

There is something else here: The Lord poured out the Spirit on people who were all together (2:1). Divisions, animosity, and strife get in the way of what God wants to do in a church and in individuals’ lives. We must forgive each other and be reconciled to each other, or we will not experience the life God intends us to have. If there is something between you and another Christ-follower, do your best to be reconciled. God will honor you for it, whatever the other person does.

And ask God for the Holy Spirit for yourself and for our church. “How much more,” Jesus asked, “will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). Don’t ask so that you can have an experience, but so that you can be the person you were always meant to be.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[2] Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ac 2:37–38). InterVarsity Press.

[3] Ibid.

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Beyond Social Justice: The Call for Spiritual Wokeness

Blues singer and guitarist Lead Belly recorded a song titled, “Scottsboro Boys” in 1938. It told the story of nine young black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. In a spoken afterward to the recording, Lead Belly advised his hearers to “Stay Woke” when they go through Scottsboro – that is, stay alert.

In 1962, the novelist William Melvin Kelly titled a column for the New York Times Magazine, “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” The article, which is about the beatnik appropriation of African American slang, shows that “woke” had already been popularized sixty years ago. It also reveals an evolution in the word’s meaning.

In the twenty-first century, “woke” became loosely synonymous with awareness of systemic injustice in white-black relationships. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, activists revived Lead Belly’s “stay woke” slang to protest police violence against blacks.

Within a couple of years of the Ferguson protests, “woke” had broken out of its referent boundaries within racial injustice. The word ballooned to include awareness of discrimination against women and LGBTQ people as well as the environmental dangers that threaten the planet. Corporate America saw “wokeness” as a means to an end: profits. Progressive America saw it as an identity marker. Conservative American saw it as insanity.

Excesses have given that position some validity. To “protect students” – and cynics wonder if it was also to display its wokeness – Princeton University stopped requiring students of the Classics to study Greek and Latin. They now learn how Greek and Roman cultures were complicit in white supremacy.  

In its rush to show itself woke, Oberlin College assisted students in protesting racial profiling at a local bakery because the owner had stopped an underage student of color from shoplifting two bottles of wine. Students who took part in the protests were awarded extra credit. The dean of students joined them. The college suspended its contract with the bakery. The courts eventually found the college guilty of libel against the store’s owners, who were awarded many millions of dollars in damages.

To commit an injustice in the name of correcting an injustice is not wokeness. The only way to really be woke is to love, to love people not concepts, to love people whatever their race, ethnicity, sex, or social standing. Love does more than tilt at social justice windmills. It treats real people with respect and fairness.

There is another, and I would argue, more basic, kind of wokeness than the social type: spiritual wokeness. The concept is given considerable space in the biblical writings. More comprehensive than social wokeness, it includes an alertness to one’s place and responsibility in God’s creation as his child.

Jesus warned his followers to “stay awake at all times…” St. Peter said, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” St. Paul tells Romans Christians that “the time has come to wake up from your slumber.” After reminding the Ephesian church of the need to wake up, the apostle instructs them to “Be very careful then how you live … because the days are evil.”

That sounds a lot like Lead Belly’s “Stay Woke.” It is not enough to wake up spiritually; one needs to stay awake. And that is not a given.

In Revelation 3, Christ shouts to the sleeping the church in Sardis, “Wake Up! Strengthen the things that remain,” and warns them of what will happen if they continue in their slumber.

I think he is similarly telling the church in America to wake up. We have spent the past few decades daydreaming of political power and institutional success. We were too groggy to notice that our children were wandering away and that some were being “devoured.”

A church that is truly awake will set the standard for true social justice. It will not do so to win kudos or increase its market share, but simply because it loves. Such love is impossible apart from an alertness to God, his will, and his ways.

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Built on a Promise (Matthew 16:13-20)

Viewing time: 27 minutes (approx.)

When I was a boy and would put more food on my plate than I was able to eat, my mother would say, “Your eyes are bigger than your belly.” When a pastor puts Matthew 16:13-20 on his preaching plate – at least this pastor – his desire to preach might be bigger than his exegetical ability.

When Kevin asked what I was preaching this week and I told him, he said something like, “That passage is filled with interpretive landmines.” He was right. Everywhere the Bible student turns in this passage, there are difficulties. If scholars were given to violence, this passage would be the ground on which much blood was spilled. Fortunately, scholars are not these days given to violence, but I would hazard that there is not a passage in the Bible over which more ink has been spilled than this one.

Catholics have argued that this passage affirms the primacy of Peter which in turn validates the hierarchy of the Church of Rome, based as it is on apostolic succession. Protestants do their best to pull the rug of Peter’s primacy out from under Catholic feet by denying that Peter is given a special place. This passage has been a battleground since the early to mid-1500s.

So why am I preaching it? Because we are trying to understand and appreciate the church of Jesus Christ, and this passage marks the first time Jesus ever mentioned the church. Surely what he has to say about the church – even if it is difficult to understand – is important. It is not only important; it is profoundly encouraging.

Let’s read the passage, Matthew 16:13-20.  When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

 We read in verse 13 that Jesus came to the Gentile region of Caesarea Philippi. When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four regions, and this part, known as Paneas, was placed under the authority of his son Philip. Caesarea Philippi was its capitol, and Philip had built a temple there in honor of Caesar Augustus.

Before the temple to Caesar was built, there was an older kind of worship in this place. There was an ancient shrine to the Greek God Pan in a grotto near the source of the Jordan River. Pagans would offer prayers and sacrifices to the god. Caesarea Philippi was a center of idolatry, and yet Jesus took his disciples there.

The Bible does not tell us why Jesus brought them to this place, but we can hazard a guess. When Jesus was with his fellow Jews, people were constantly coming to him for help and for healing. In Mark’s gospel we learn that there were days when he and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus had become, in spite of his best efforts, a celebrity. Had there been first century paparazzi, they would have been hounding his every step. Even without the paparazzi, it was hard for Jesus to get quality time with his disciples.

So, he brought them up here, 25 miles from the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It was a different world here. Most people were Gentiles. There were no crowds, no people breaking in on their meals, or keeping them from his meals, or interrupting Jesus in the middle of a teaching session – all of which we read about in other places. He brought his disciples here to tell them something important.

Jesus began the conversation with a question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” was Jesus’s way of referring to himself. (It appears 88 times in the Gospels.) He chose this self-designation for a reason. “Son of Man” could refer simply to a human being – any human being. It is regularly used this was of Ezekiel.

But in the Book of Daniel, “Son of Man” referred to the messiah. By referring to himself as the “Son of Man,” Jesus kept people guessing. Was he saying that he was just an ordinary man? Or was he claiming to be the Messiah? At the conclusion of his earthly ministry, he clarified what he meant. Before the Jewish ruling council, he told the high priest, “…you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). That is straight out of Daniel 7. Jesus was claiming to be God’s messiah, the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given.

Here in Paneas, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” I suspect the question took the disciples by surprise. Jesus had never shown any interest in what people thought of him. I also suspect the question pleased the disciples, for they were deeply interested in what people thought. They stayed up to date on what people were saying, and they offered Jesus four representative answers.

Some people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist. This seems like an odd answer – Jesus and John were contemporaries. Yet Philip’s brother Herod Antipas had murdered John the Baptist, and then feared that John had come back to life in the person of Jesus. Apparently, that belief had got around.

A second answer was that the Son of Man – Jesus – was Elijah returned to life. This idea was based in an odd prophecy from the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi wrote that God would: “…send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes (Malachi 4:5). Many Jews expected Elijah would come back and work some more miracles before the end—and here was Jesus working miracles. Could he be Elijah?

A third popular answer was that Jesus was a reincarnated Jeremiah. Like Jeremiah, Jesus was a man of sorrows. Like Jeremiah, he was in conflict with the religious rulers and wasn’t afraid to expose their corruption. And like Jeremiah, he foretold the downfall of Jerusalem.

The final answer is more generic: Jesus is “one of the prophets.” Whether John, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophetic corps, it seemed that popular opinion thought of Jesus as a prophet. In first century Israel, that was a very high estimate.

This complimentary assessment did not seem to impress Jesus. He really was not interested in who the general public took him to be. But he was interested in what his disciples thought. For them to misunderstand him might compromise the whole program. So, Jesus asks the twelve, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Peter – impetuous, strong, bold Peter – answers on behalf of the other apostles: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” “Prophet” does not go far enough. You are the messiah, the Christ, the Son of God spoken of in Psalm 2 and elsewhere. Peter could not think of any higher appraisal of Jesus.

Jesus responds that Peter is blessed and tells him why. He is blessed because this insight into Jesus’s identity was revealed to him by the Father. Pause there for a moment. To have truth revealed to you from God is to have a God-encounter. That is not some trifling thing. If the God who created the universe reveals something directly to you, you are blessed. If the God of the universe has revealed truth to you, that is huge!

Notice again what Peter said to Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Now listen to the words Jesus spoke to Peter: “And I say you are Peter.” (Peter, petros in Greek, means “rock” or “stone.”) Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus says, “You are the Petros.” The repetition is intentional. Peter calls Jesus, “the son of God.” Jesus calls Peter, “The son of John” (or “Jonah”).

Peter made a declaration about Jesus’s identity, so Jesus made a declaration about Peter’s identity. “You are Petros” (“Rock,” like “Rock Hudson” or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), “and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.”

Some Protestant interpreters make a big deal of the difference between, “Peter” (“petros”) and “rock” (“petra”). They say that the rock on which Jesus builds his church cannot be Peter, who didn’t prove to be very rock-like. So, the rock must either be Peter’s faith or his confession of Jesus. This does not seem right to me. For one thing, Jesus could not have nicknamed Peter “Petra,” which has a feminine ending and would have been like calling him “Petrina” – a girl’s name. Besides that, if Jesus was speaking Aramaic, which is quite likely, he would have used the word Cephas both times.

I think those Protestants interpreters are wrong to try to deemphasize Peter’s importance. The “word-play,” as the very Protestant scholar R.T. France put it, “and the whole structure of the passage demands that this verse is every bit as much Jesus’s declaration about Peter as v. 16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus.” Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church.

Of course, in Ephesians we learn that the other apostles – and not just Peter – are also rocks in the foundation of the church. Peter himself says that we are the “living stones” with which Christ’s church is being built. But we must admit that Peter did occupy an important place in the founding of the church. He preached the message on the Day of Pentecost when the church was born. He was Christ’s spokesmen before the religious leaders. He opened the door to take the gospel to the Gentiles. It was his voice that carried the day in the first church council.

While all that it true, it should be said that there is absolutely nothing here or anywhere else in Scripture that would suggest that Peter was the first in an unbroken succession of popes to lead the church. There is not so much as a hint about apostolic succession here or anywhere else in the Bible. Before 1560, not even Catholic interpreters felt it necessary to stress Peter’s primacy when exegeting this passage. They only began doing so in reaction to Martin Luther.

I think when the church turns these verses into a Catholic-Protestant debate, which has happened untold times, both Catholics and Protestants lose out. Every time we draw our exegetical swords, we are the ones who miss the point. Jesus the Messiah the Son of the Living God has promised to build his church! That promise is priceless.

What is his church that he promises to build? The word is used both in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the New. It has the idea of an assembly of people that has gathered for a particular purpose: an assembly of the city’s citizens to conduct business; the assembly of fighting men to wage war; it is even used in Acts of the unlawful assembly of a riotous mob in Ephesus.

The word was often used to designate God’s people, the remnant that remained true to him, and that is the idea here. Jesus intends to build a people who are loyal to him. They will be, in Peter’s quotation from Exodus, a holy nation, a people who are God’s special possession.

Every time a child, a man, or a woman comes to believe in Jesus, it is because the Messiah, the Son of God has been at work building his church. We, if we are Christ’s, have been built into his special people, the holy nation, God’s special possession. And Christ will continue to build his church, and nothing will stop him.

There have been times in the history of the church when Jesus’s people have needed to know this. It’s something that Jesus’s people need to know now. From our perspective, the church is under threat. People outside the church are constantly criticizing. The church is portrayed in society as unloving, irrelevant, and outdated. Christian sexual ethics are attacked in courts of law and in the court of public opinion.

Inside the church it is worse. In the U.S. in 2019, 4,500 Protestant churches closed while only 3,000 churches were started. Only one out of four Gen-Z people attend church at least once a month. Over half of adults and teens say they have experienced doubts about their beliefs – that does not worry me – but 83% of those link their doubts to past experiences with a religious institution. Instead of saying that the church has helped them through their doubts, they say the church has caused their doubts!

The Methodist Church, which shaped the American frontier, has been engaged in a civil war over sexual ethics. The Roman Catholic church has lost about 3 million adults. In 2021 alone, the Episcopal church lost 60,000 members. Even before Covid, giving across denominational lines was decreasing. Only 10 to 25 percent of church members actually tithe.

I expect that the day is coming – perhaps sooner than we think – when the tax deduction for charitable giving will be withdrawn from churches. Will people then stop giving altogether? And before that happens, will the IRS be politically weaponized to punish churches that maintain their biblical convictions? Will there even be a church in fifty years? In twenty-five years?

Yes, there will be a church, for the Messiah Jesus, the Son of the Living God has promised. He will build his church. The IRS will not stop him. Gen Z won’t delay him. Neither will my Boomer generation. Christ will build his church and he will complete it. He is unstoppable!

A fanatical zealot named Saul tried to destroy the infant church in the mid-thirties of the first century. Jesus transformed him into the Apostle Paul. Claudius tried to wipe out the church a few years after that, then Nero. Jesus turned Rome into the center of world Christianity. Over and over, evil has fought against Christ’s church: Julian the Apostate banned Christians from all teaching positions. The Communists expelled or imprisoned all priests and ministers from Albania and turned churches into movie theaters and dance halls. In Russia, tens of thousands of churches were destroyed, and a half a million Christians were murdered. Under Chairman Mao, Christians were persecuted, churches closed, and clergy imprisoned. Christians are still being harassed in China today, yet the Protestant church there grew by 73 percent in one decade. Jesus always wins.

And he will win here! Neither government persecution, nor the apostasy of many, nor the apathy of others, nor the departure of a long-time pastor will not stop Jesus from building his church. Even the gates of hades, which speaks of the intractability of death, is no match for Jesus and his church. Think of it. Both Sts. Peter and Paul were executed around 67 AD. The church went on. With John’s death near the end of the first century, all the apostles were gone, but the church went on. The church’s foundation was buried but the construction carried on. A Polycarp arose. A Clement. A Cyprian. An Origen. An Augustine, and so it has been right on down to today.

Death has not and will not stop Jesus from building his church. Neither will the one who holds the power of death. Jesus says that the gates of hades will not overcome the church and that is a little hard to understand. Is the church on the offense or on the defense? Pastors will sometimes say that the church is attacking the gates of hades, but the original language is against it. When the verb is used in this way, it is always active, not passive. It means vanquish, not withstand.

Jesus knew that the threat of death would be used against his church – and it was from almost the first day. Stephen the deacon was martyred by stoning. The apostle James was martyred by beheading. The one who holds the power of death tried to drive the young church behind its unbreakable gates, or to coerce its members into silence by the threat of death.

That didn’t work for two reasons. First, for every Christian that was killed (and there were many), a dozen new ones took his or her place. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Second, and more importantly, Christians didn’t fear death. Even though they could never break it brass gates and iron bars, they knew they didn’t need to: their savior has the key!

In the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, the Jesus who said, “The gates of hades will not overcome my church,” also said, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).

The nations may rage at the church and its king, they may harass and bluster, they may imprison and even kill, but the church will succeed—not because we are tough, or crafty, or clever, but because we are Christ’s, and nothing can stop him.

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The Search for God: A Journey that Never Ends

The Search for God: A Journey That Never Ends

Everyone is a searcher. Not everyone knows it. Humans eat, sleep, mate, work – and they search. In fact, they search while they are eating, sleeping, mating, and working.

 Those who know they are searching say things like, “I’m searching for peace.” Or “I am looking for excitement” (or friendship, or love, or purpose, or glory). Yet whenever people find what they are looking for – find friendship or love or glory – they go right on searching; they don’t stop.

 That’s because their quest is part of a more comprehensive search on which humans have embarked: the search for God. People may deny that they are searching for God, either because they do not believe God exists, or because they do not care. They may also deny that they are searching for God because they may believe they have already found him.

One finds the latter kind of people in churches. They’ve stopped searching for God because they have found him. They have had a spiritual encounter or have responded to an invitation to receive Christ into their life. But it does not follow that their search has been completed.

350 years ago, a shipload of pilgrims landed on America’s northeast coast. In their first year there they built houses and streets and established a town. In the second year they elected a town government. In the third year the town government voted to build a road five miles westward into the wilderness.

In the fourth year, angered by the waste of public funds, the townspeople tried to impeach their government. Why build a road into the wilderness? They were already in the new land – why would anyone want to go further?

For someone to say that they have found God because they had a conversion or other spiritual experience is like those pilgrims saying they had found America because they had seen a few miles of the east coast. Yes, they had found America, but there was so much more for them to discover – Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and on and on. And there is so much more of God to be discovered – cataracts of grace, mountains of joy, and rivers of peace.

Our spiritual journey is like the voyage those pilgrims took as they sailed the vast waters between England and America. Welcoming Christ into one’s life is like bringing the captain aboard ship: someone who knows what to do is now in command. But that does not mean that we have arrived at our destination. The search continues.

Some people deny that they have ever searched for God. For answers, yes – and for meaning, for excitement, and for love – but not for God. Or so they think.

C. S. Lewis, the brilliant atheist who became a Christian, once wrote: “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven” – or we might substitute God – “at all, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.” The desires for beauty, pleasure, and even power all derive from the primeval desire, shared by all humans, for God.

God is the human heart’s deepest longing. The desire for him is bred in our bones. It is him, whether we know it or not, that we’ve been seeking all our lives, from birth to death, day in and day out, year after year. We thought we found what we were looking for in our hobbies, in the smell of a pine wood or in the slap of water on a rocky shore. But these things were not it. We thought we had found it in the music we loved or in our truest romance.

St. Paul told the intellectual crowd in Athens that God made the world the way he did so that people “would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” The universe is a put-up job. The cosmos was intentionally designed to turn us into God-seekers.

And not just seekers, but also finders.

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Busyness and Hurry (What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture)

U.S.A. Today published a multi-year poll in 2008 regarding people’s perception of time and their own busyness. It found that in each consecutive year since 1987, people reported that they are busier than the year before, with 69% responding that they were either “busy,” or “very busy,” with only 8% responding that they were “not very busy.” 

Busyness and Hurry (Class 3)
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We Are the Temple of the Living God (with Kevin Looper)

How can Christians be in the world but not of it? What does it mean to be unequally yoked? Does this only happen in marriage, or can we be unequally yoked in other relationships? We explore the questions as we look at 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 in this timely message for the church.

Viewing time: approximately 25 minutes
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The Danger of Unanchored Spirituality

Rolling Stone published a list of the top 100 guitarists of all time that has Carlos Santana at number 20. Carlos has won ten Grammy Awards and sold 100 million records. He is a rock legend. He is also a deeply spiritual person.

In his 2014 autobiography, Carlos revealed his practice of sitting in front of the fireplace with a card on the floor next to him. On the card, painted in intricate picture letters, is the word “Metatron.” Metatron is an angel with whom Carlos had been in regular contact since 1994. He keeps a yellow legal pad at his side, to record what Metatron says to him.

Carlos says: “There’s an inner voice, and when you hear it, you get a little tingle in your medulla oblongata at the back of your neck, a little shiver, and at two o’clock in the morning, everything’s really quiet and you meditate and you got the candles, you got the incense and you’ve been chanting, and all of a sudden you hear this voice: ‘Write this down.’ It is just an inner voice, and you trust it. That voice will never take you to the desert…”

Carlos is a great guitarist but he’s not a careful enough theologian. The idea that “the voice” of God or of a benevolent spirit “will never take you to the desert” is simply mistaken. God certainly does send people to the desert. He sent Jesus there. He sent Moses there and St. Paul there too. God’s people aren’t delicate little flowers. They not only survive the desert, they bloom there. God sends them where they’ll do the most good and experience the greatest growth and, if that is the desert, to the desert they will go.

The idea that spirituality is good in and of itself is erroneous. Spirituality is like fire: it can save, or it can destroy. It can be good or bad. It all depends on where it comes from and where it is going. I’m not judging Carlos – I think he’s great – but I worry about where his spirituality is coming from and where it is going. There are worse places than the desert.

Spirituality must be grounded in truth, built on the bedrock of a spiritual universe; that is, on the God who is spirit and truth. Otherwise, it will go wrong. The Bible offers an example of spirituality gone wrong in the Corinthian church.

Some of the Corinthian church members were, like Carlos, fascinated with the spiritual. They referred to themselves as the “pneumatics” – the Spiritual Ones. We are the spiritual ones. We understand. We have insight.

The Corinthians were not, like Carlos, fascinated with angels (that was the Colossians), but they were fascinated with Spirit-inspired speech, like glossolalia and prophecies. They considered these to be a sign that a person was a pneumatic – was special.

When St. Paul wrote the Corinthians that he did not want them to be ignorant about the gifts of the Spirit, it must have felt to them like a slap in the face. They were the spiritual ones. But they were getting it wrong, and Paul knew it. True spirituality never makes people think themselves superior to others. That kind of spirituality is built on the wrong foundation.

That’s why Paul reminds them that, before their conversion to Christ, spirituality had messed them up. They had experienced inspired speech way back then – but it wasn’t inspired by God. Paul insists that the important thing is not whether they are inspired but where that inspiration comes from and where it is going. If it does not lead to a life that confesses “Jesus is Lord,” it is the wrong kind of spirituality.

Any spirituality that causes a person to look down on others doesn’t originate with God. A spirituality that engenders rivalry and one-upmanship is dangerous and devilish. Healthy spirituality, the kind that derives from the Spirit of God and leads to the Lordship of Jesus, is experienced individually but is never individualistic. It is experienced and expressed in community. It thrives in the context of the church.

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What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture: Beauty and Modesty

Viewing Time: 43:11
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The Foundation (Acts 1:12-14)

The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone (see Eph. 2:20), Who are the people who formed the foundation of God’s eternal church? Why were they chosen? What does this mean for us?

Approximate viewing time: 24 minutes

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

These men whose names I just read are the foundation “of apostles and prophets” on which the church of God is built, in which Christ Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-20). When we look at these men and the people with them, we are seeing the proto church. We cannot call them the church yet, since they have not yet been bound to each other by the one Spirit, but they are the foundation of the church. And notice what work is being done at the foundational level: they are praying (v. 14). “…constantly in prayer” could be translated, “constantly attending to prayer…”

The word has the idea of being on call. It is used, for example, of a high ranking officer’s chief of staff, who was always at his beck and call. Here, the idea is not that prayer is always there for the apostles and others to use, but that the apostles and others are always there and ready to be used for prayer. I wonder if that describes us.

This is the proto-church, and there are some things to notice. They are still hurting from the defection of one of their closest friends, their fellow apostle, Judas. They can still hardly believe it. Judas was not simply these men’s co-worker; he was their brother. They were family. The Gospels make it clear that none of them had any inkling that Judas would betray them. His defection left them stunned, angry, and hurt.

Another thing to notice is the interesting association of Peter with John. Both these men have biological brothers among the Apostles. It was Peter’s brother Andrew who first introduced him to Jesus. And John’s older brother James was one of the first of the Twelve and was the first to die a martyr’s death. Yet it is Peter’s and John’s names that are linked here and then twelve more times in the first eight chapters of Acts. In every other catalog of the apostles, Peter and Andrew always head the list, followed by James and John, but here we have (literally) Peter and John, James and Andrew. The blood of Christ makes new family connections between people that are as just real, and can be even more permanent, than the connections made by the blood that flows through our veins.

Notice too that the apostles are “joined together” with the women, with Mary, and with Jesus’s brothers. “Joined together” expressed a Greek word that has often been translated, “of one accord” or “of one mind.” The idea behind this word is that something outside a group of people has united them. It could be used today to to describe Muslims, Jews, and Christians all pulling together to rescue earthquake survivors in Turkey. Something outside them has united them. Or it could be used of the 85 instrumentalists in an orchestra that are playing under the baton of one conductor. It is not that they have a natural affinity for each other (they may or may not); it’s that the conductor has united them around the one score.

During his time on earth, Jesus Christ promised to build his church and the men listed in verse 13 are the building materials he chose to use in the foundation. If you know anything of their history, you might think that Jesus had left himself open to the charge of using inferior grade building materials. If these guys are up to code, it would seem like the code needs to be revised.  

It was not the natural quality of these men that suited them for their place in the church’s foundation; it was the bonding agent that hardened their resolve, cemented them together, and made them “strong, firm, and steadfast.” It was the addition of God’s Spirit into their lives that made all the difference. He is the Spirit of life, the Spirit of holiness, the Spirit of sonship, the Spirit of unity, the Spirit of power, the Spirit of revelation, the Spirit of grace. It was the introduction of the Spirit into these men and the immersion of these men in the Spirit that transformed them.

Christ did not choose them for their foundational role in the church because of their obvious superiority. After three years of discipleship, three years of living together day and night in the company of the committed, Jesus told these same men that they would all fall away. They insisted he was wrong. He told Peter that he was going to disown him. Peter adamantly denied it. Nevertheless, they all fell away, and Peter disowned his master. These men did not seem like the kind of quality building material needed for the church of the eternal God. They were not strong, firm, and steadfast.

Yet the Bonding Agent, the Holy Spirit made them strong. Each of them would remain true to Christ for the rest of their lives, serving sacrificially, and dying heroically. Tradition, not Scripture – these stories are not inspired – have Peter dying by crucifixion in Rome in 67 AD. John was exiled to the Island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus. James was the first of the apostles to die, beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross in Greece after seven soldiers beat him mercilessly. Philip was executed on the orders of a Roman proconsul whose wife he had led to faith in Christ.

According to tradition, four soldiers in India ran Thomas through with spears. Batholomew was martyred in Arabia. Matthew was stabbed in Ethiopia. James son of Alpheus was clubbed to death, then beheaded. Simon was killed in Persia. Judas son of James, also known as Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows.

If tradition is true, all these men remained faithful to Christ through serious suffering. They lived heroically and died martyrs’ deaths. Their lives proved that Jesus was right to choose them for the foundation of his church. But who would have guessed that before God reinforced them, transformed them, and bonded them together by his Spirit? I can imagine the angels in heaven looking at these guys and saying to the ascended Jesus: “Lord, we were just wondering if … if you have a backup plan in place.”

Why? Because these men all blundered at one time or another. They were constantly misunderstanding what Jesus told them – right up to his ascension. They quarreled. They said and did the wrong thing, not once but time and time again.

Take Peter, who is always mentioned first in every list of the apostles. Was he a spiritual superstar or a spiritual blunderer? The Gospels present him as impetuous – the kind of guy who speaks before he thinks. When he was on what he later referred to as “the holy mountain” (the mount of transfiguration), he blurted out something ridiculous, and Luke comments that “he did not know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33). Peter could be counted on to talk when he didn’t know what he was saying.

Peter was the guy who jumped out of the boat and tried to walk on the water. You have to admire his zeal, but he sank and would have drowned had Jesus not saved him. Peter was the guy who took a knife to a gunfight (or something like that) and tried to use it; Jesus rebuked him.

And speaking of rebuking, Peter was the only apostle who was insolent enough to rebuke Jesus. We read the story in Matthew 16:21-22: “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” What kind of guy rebukes Jesus? Peter. Speak first, think later Peter.

Peter had his high points too. In fact, it is an interesting study to see how his high points seem to coexist with and even precipitate his low points. Peter was quick to obey, but he was slow to listen. He was the first to act, but it was frequently the wrong action. He was self-confident, but it was a misplaced confidence that let him and others down.

The greatest example of this misplaced confidence happened on the night Jesus was betrayed. Peter guaranteed his loyalty to Jesus (while casting doubt on the loyalty of his fellow disciples’). He vowed that he would die before he would desert Jesus. After Jesus’s arrest, Peter bravely followed him right into the enemy’s compound. But then he denied Jesus not once but three times in a matter of an hour or two. And, I think, once again he hardly knew what he was saying. Speak first, think later Peter.

And what did Jesus do? He made this man Chief Apostle and placed him in the foundation of his glorious church. Some of us have messed up as badly as Peter. Does that mean we have ruined our chances of ever getting close to Christ and serving him? Do our failures disqualify us? No. Our sins will only stop us if we refuse to leave them.

Peter was not the only stone in the church’s foundation that was chipped and uneven. In fact, with the exception of Jesus himself, who is the chief cornerstone, all the rest are flawed and lopsided. It contributes greatly to God’s glory that he builds his beautiful church out of such people – people like us.

Take Philip for example. If I have a favorite apostle, it is Philip. After his calling, every time he appears in the Gospels, he seems confused. Philip is the disciple who just didn’t get it. On one occasion, while they were out in the wilderness, Jesus asked him where they might buy food to feed a crowd of thousands. Jesus was obviously testing Philip but he didn’t realize it, and blurted out, “Two hundred denarii” – a huge amount of money – “wouldn’t buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (John 6:7).

In what might be the silliest thing any of Jesus’s disciples ever said, Philip urged Jesus to “Just show us the Father” – bring the eternal, infinite, sovereign God into this room; put him on display – “and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). If Peter was impulsive, Philip was befuddled.

And yet, of all the disciples, Philip is the only one we know of that Jesus went out personally to find and commission. Jesus wanted Philip the Befuddled. Philip didn’t have to “get it”; Jesus got him.

Next in the list is Thomas. If Philip was befuddled, Thomas was gloomy. He was a dark cloud on a sunny day, the Eeyore of the apostolic band. Here is how he encouraged the other disciples: “Let’s go with Jesus so that we might die with him” (John 11:16). Jesus once gave his apostles the beautiful promise that he would come back for them and take them to be with him. He then added, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas interrupted with characteristic bluntness: “We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”

Thomas is best known for his stubborn refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25).

What did Jesus do with that storm cloud of a man? He made a believer of him: “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). According to tradition, old storm cloud Thomas brought showers of blessing to India and many people there were converted to Christ under his ministry.

We could go on. Matthew was a traitor who sold out his nation for financial gain. He became the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Simon the Zealot was a guy who advocated the execution of people like Matthew without trial or jury. Jesus put them in the same squad.

And don’t forget that this group included early joiners besides the Apostles– the women and Jesus’s brothers. His brothers did not have any confidence in Jesus until after the resurrection. In fact, they disparaged him: “Why don’t you go to the big city and do your shtick there? No one who wants to be a celebrity hangs out in a Podunk place like this” (my very loose paraphrase of John 7:3-4). Yet brother James would go on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem and brother Jude would write one of our New Testament letters.

What can we learn from this? Jesus Christ started the church with very imperfect people. People who didn’t get it. People who failed spectacularly. People who had a history. He is building his church with the same kind of people today. Remember what Paul said to the Corinthians: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were” (1 Cor. 6:9c-11a). And it’s what some of us were too.

Jesus isn’t building his church out of people who have it all together but people who are placing all their hope in him. They get to be part of something bigger than themselves. They are connected. They are doing something that makes a difference. They are part of a story that will be told forever. They get off the sidelines and fulfill the role God has prepared for them.

Now remember that in the foundation-laying days of the church, these first believers were joining constantly in prayer. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4) but, interestingly, Jesus had not told them to pray. Yet, they joined constantly in prayer, were on call for prayer. Why?

I think it was because Jesus had modeled prayer for them. Luke tells us that before his baptism, Jesus prayed and it was while he was praying, that the Spirit descended on him from heaven (Luke 3:21). He taught them that the Father would give the Spirit to those who asked him (Luke 11:13) and told them to keep praying and not give up (Luke 18:1). And so, they prayed while they waited, and it was while they were praying that the Spirit, the bonding agent, was poured out on them. The Spirit transformed them into the firm, sure, and steadfast foundation of which Christ is the chief cornerstone.

It was not just in the foundation-laying stage of the project that prayer is important, but at every phase of the construction of Christ’s church. And notice that these men and women didn’t just pray privately in their homes; they prayed together. If you want to see Christ’s church – including our church – be all God can make it, you should be praying together with other people.

There is a Friday morning, 9:00 prayer meeting for the church that has been happening for years in room 303, right by the church office. If you cannot come together with others to pray then, start something yourself. Invite a few people to join you in prayer on a regular basis.

April will be a month of prayer at Lockwood, bookended by two days when we will pray together. We will be seeking God’s will for us in this year of transition. Decide right now that you will be a part of that.

Something else we see here: our unity as a church family does not come from within us but from without. As we move closer to Christ, we get closer to each other. We are not bonded together by race or class or education but by the bonding agent, the Spirit of God. Do you want to fit in, find friends, be part of a vibrant community? The best thing you can do is move closer to Christ.

Finally, I’ve notice that many people veto themselves, keep themselves at a distance. Don’t do that. I’ve known people who have been at Lockwood for years who, when they’re talking to me, say, “Your church really is this or that” instead of “Our church is this or that.” Could it be that they think they have no share in the church because of what their life has been?

But look at who God chose to be the foundation of Christ’s church—people like us! People who have a history. People who have a personality. People who fail. Don’t veto yourself. Present yourself to God, submit to Jesus, and see what he can do with you.  

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