Monday, February 27, 2006

Lost the plot (The Church part 2)

The Church for years has been labeled irrelevant. Christians are seen as people who hold to an ancient and old-fashioned religion that really does nothing but hold people back from doing what they want to do. The culture around the church has in many places moved into a post-Christian era, a scary place for Christians to minister to people in.

How do you minister to a group of people who think that there are beyond you and what you believe? The problem is that the Church has not noticed this and in most situations is still trying to prove that it is right. So the culture around us sees us as even more irrelevant. It’s a huge downward spiraling cycle that continues to move the Church farther and farther away from being effective in the culture around it.

If the church wants to succeed it needs to get beyond the fact that Christianity is right. Being right and wrong is not something that matters as much in our world, and something that should not even be a concern in our lives. (Besides if we are always trying to prove we’re right, then the Church becomes a place of conflict instead of a place of healing and help.)

All the way back in the Old Testament, we see the Hebrew nation was commanded to look out for the poor, the fatherless and the widow.
• The Torah commands farmers to not harvest their fields completely so that those who do not have may gather for themselves.
• There are extensive areas in how to protect the rights of women.
• There are commands to make sure children have fatherly influences in their lives.

These commands are the primary moral obligations that the people of God were given. There is no doubt that there is an emphasis on righting the social injustices of the world. The problem with Israel is that they continued to forget this, and the prophets kept reminding them. Isaiah in the very first chapter of his book writes a very harsh condemnation to the people because they have neglected the poor, the fatherless, and the widow.

Jesus followed this line of thought with an emphasis on putting others first. He condemns the teachers in the temple (Mark 11) for just this. Jesus in verse 17 quotes two Old Testament passages, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. Many people think these comments were references to the entire passages, a sort of rabbinical style of conversation. These passages would then be comments about how the leaders of Israel have neglected the people that they were supposed to be taking care of and looking out for themselves.

Much of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke especially) have Jesus talking about what he calls the “Kingdom of God.” He describes this kingdom as a place where people focus on the needs of other first. A place where generosity is focused on and where coming in first is not the major concern, a place where our world is literally turned upside down.

Jesus as he ascended into heaven, gave the directive to his disciple to: “Go and make disciples of all the nations...teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded.” What has Jesus commanded us to do? He has commanded us to teach people about this upside down Kingdom!

The problem with the Church is that so often it has mixed up teaching about the Kingdom of God with teaching the correctness of the Kingdom. We’re not called to prove its existence but to live it out. This is how we lose our relevancy to culture. We get into groups and we write out statements of our beliefs and then never let it leave our Church doors. We build amazing buildings where we can worship, but never improve the condition of the people’s lives around us. And all this is done thinking that it is what Jesus would have wanted us to do.

The book of James sums this conversation up. James 1 ends with this comment-“Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphans and the widows in their distress and to keep ones self from being polluted by the world.”

Our mission if we should decide to accept it is to be concerned with the well-being of others around us!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Church (part 1)

I am going to do a series of writings on the church. I hope that over the next four or five weeks that I will begin to understand what I believe more clearly, and just what the church is and is going to be. So thanks for reading along with my thoughts.

First I think we need to explain just what the church is. If you went to Sunday school you know that the answer is “We are the church!” The Church is the people that make up its congregations and then the combination of all those congregations. So the Church is the total of all the different Christians around the world combined.

Today in the Student Center at IWU, I heard a conversation going on about the Catholic Church. Apparently one of the guys did not appreciate being lumped into the same category as the Catholics. I know he is not alone, because I grew up in a very Separatists community, and people who are Catholics were (and still are) looked down upon. But this is not the way that it should be. The Catholic Church is still part of the “Big C” church community.

Christ is the Greek word that means, “Anointed one”, it is the counterpart for the Hebrew word Messiah. So to be a Christian means to be a follower of the anointed one. Not a very complicated idea, and I’m sure that this makes sense. So if the Church is the collection of the followers of the Anointed one, we should be following His lead.

Second, the more that you study the New Testament, the more that you see the earliest disciples of Jesus were very subversive to the Romans. The Greek word for church “ecclesia” was actually the word used to describe the community of the Roman Empire. This must have been a totally revolutionary concept for those who heard the Gospel for the first time. Here is this religion that is proclaiming the new message, and comparing themselves to the Roman government.

This group of people who gathered together also used many of the terms used to describe Caesar. They used the names that described glory and honor to Caesar and gave them to Jesus. The book of Revelation is full of them. Even the concept that Jesus ascended to Heaven and is sitting at the right hand of the Father is imagery from the Romans. There was a story that said, Julius Caesar ascended to the right hand of the Gods after he died. So we see that even the early Christian imagery has a very Roman slant to it.

So the name and many of the images of the church have a 1st century understanding. We have adopted them in our 21st century understanding to think that they are entirely “Christian” ideas, but they are not. I have said all this to try and say we have to understand the culture of the first followers of Jesus, to understand where what we are today.

The early Christians were countercultural! They were different than the people around them, which is why they were persecuted. In Church History Class we talk about the misconceptions that people had of the Christians. They were called cannibals, immoral, godless, and anti-government. They were killed and they were maimed they were persecuted everywhere they went. This was not because they were any of these things, but because they were different.

What does the body do?

First the body meets together to hear the word explained. This is the part where the preaching and teaching happens. This is essential to teach people what they believe.

Second the Church administers the sacraments and orders itself in a proper manner. I would like to consider the sacraments larger than just communion and baptism, I believe we should include more of a Catholic understanding of the sacraments.

Thirdly keeping our community rightly ordered. This is where Christians understand of right and wrong, and how life should. This has become the primary way that we know we are Christians, and we need to be careful, but it is still an important part of Christianity.

This is a basic idea of what I believe the church to be. Everything that the church does must come through this understanding of the Church in my opinion.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The World Ripped Open (part 2)

The world has been ripped open and the walls and the barriers that were once established are now non-existent. This is the thought that I threw out in my previous post. I made the point that now the Heavens and the earth and whatever separates the two from each other has permanently damaged. But what does that mean? It means that heaven is now trying to pour out onto earth-it is seeping out and trying to fill the earth up!

This is kind of a different thought because most people think of heaven as a future reality. There is the here and now-and then there is the future physical universe and that’s heaven. Rob Bell, a pastor in Grand Rapids describes Heaven and Earth in a different way: Heaven is a place where things happen, as God would have them, Earth is a place where they don’t.

Jesus taught in stories, many times he told stories like this; “The Kingdom of God (or Heaven) is like...(enter Parable). The Kingdom in these parables was a Kingdom where things were done quite differently than in the world around Jesus’ listeners. In these stories it was like the Kingdom Jesus was talking about was almost completely backwards from what they knew.

The weird thing about Jesus’ teachings is that they were talking about being selfless. To be a religious person was to deny ones self and follow Christ. Jesus wanted people to give up a pursuit of being #1 and to make others a higher priority.

Jesus seemed to be talking about Earth (the place where things don’t always happen the way God wants) becoming more like Heaven (the place where things do happen as God wants). He was talking about the total change the world, not just a religion. He didn’t want his disciples to just change how Judaism impacted their lives, but he wanted to change how they lived.

What has happened in the last few decades is that people have started to treat Christianity as only about getting people saved. We have become Gnostic* to some level and have only concerned ourselves with the spiritual, and this is wrong! We have forgotten what Jesus taught us to do! We have neglected the message of the Bible!

James 1:26-27 seems to cap the conversation of Jesus’ ministry. James was addressing the community of believers and was discussing some abuses in the church. Apparently there were Believers who were trying to gain the attention of the rich and popular. James wants nothing to do with this type of action, and says in these verses, “real religion is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

I guess this has been the point of these last two posts. I honestly believe that as Christians if we only focus on our Salvation, we are not being good Christians. We are being called to look after the orphans and the widows, the poor and sickly, those who cannot take care of themselves. God wants us to be not about ourselves and us getting to heaven, as much as he wants us to be helping other people and making sure that they are going to go to heaven. Or Better yet-help them see heaven here on earth.

*Gnostic belief is that the spirit is good and the physical is evil. So we only need to worry about dealing with the spirit. What is done by the physical is beside the point. Gnosticism has been condemned as a heresy and is not good at all.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Does God hate sinners?

Just in case you don’t know, there are people there who proclaim that God hates sinners. They make harsh, rude, offensive statements portraying God as if he were filled with rage and making judgment the primary concern in God’s repertoire. People like Pat Robertson and the people of Westboro Baptist Church are great examples of preachers of this “Gospel.”

Pat Robertson is a classic example of a man who says things that flat out turn people away from Christ. He speaks out against homosexuals and against people who promote lifestyles different than his by using judgment language. An example of this type of action is last fall he told a community in Pennsylvania to watch their backs because God’s judgment and wrath coming in response to them voting down the schools wanting to teach creative design creation theories. What?!?! (I would just like to make a point here, creative design is not a Christian theory, it’s closer than evolution, but still it’s not Christian so Pat just needs to get his facts straight.)

The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas has a very similar reputation. Their church homepage is I say more? These people are vicious anti-homosexuals, using language like “God hates you!” Their web site has features like the listing of their 6 daily pickets of the courthouse in Topeka, and the other nationwide events that they picket at showing how God hates fags…AND anybody else who does not join the ferocity of their attacks.

In case you don’t know me and are reading this, I do not agree with the homosexual lifestyle, but I do not believe that you can do anything to make God hate you. I do not believe that what you do changes anything about how God feels about you as a person. John 3:16 one of the most quoted verses in the Bible says. “For God so LOVED the World, that he gave his Son, that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life.

The word for world there in the Greek is kosmos. It literally means the world-everything It does not just mean the people on the earth, nor does it mean just the people who follow God, but everything! I do not know how much more broad you can get! God Loves this world! Jesus came to repair the broken relationship that man had with God. There is nothing more central to the heart of Christianity.

The word that is used for Love is John 3:16 is the word Agape. It means intense passionate pure hearted love. It is not the I love you like a brother or the physical love, but LOVE. God is not saying I like you, he is saying you’re so important to me, I am coming to save the day! You sin and disconnect from me, so I am coming to save you! Not you sin I am coming to judge you.

If you go to the next verse of John 3, verse 17, you read, “for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” HOW CAN ANY PERSON SAY THAT GOD HATES ANYBODY!! Doesn’t the revelation of Jesus and the work of Jesus seem to shoot that thought do the ground Another way to read that verse is to say God didn’t send his Son to judge the world but to save it.

God loves you-he loves you enough to become a man and impose upon himself all the limitations that man has, and then die a death for you, that you might be free from the problems and the wounds and the hurts of this life-he did not come because he hates you. For God so loved the world….

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The World Ripped Open (part 1)

Jesus was born into a Jewish world around two thousand years ago. The entire world of the Jew was wrapped around the Temple and the temple worship system. This temple was in the holy city of Jerusalem, and in the middle of the temple was the holy of holies. This holiest of sites is believed to be the spot where Abraham actually laid Isaac on an alter to sacrifice, and was separated from the rest of the temple by a huge curtain (some say 18 inches thick!).

In Solomon’s temple, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the holy of holies. The top of the Ark was in such a way that it looked like a seat. Many described this as a place where the presence of God would come and sit. Thus the throne of God was in the holy of holies in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

The holy of holies was in located a part of the temple where only the priests could go. The Priest’s section of the temple was located in a place where only ‘clean’ Jewish men could go. That was located inside the walls of the temple, and that was inside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. All of these dividers were defended and protected by the Jewish people, to defile the temple was a bad thing, and the Jews were very protective.

I hope you can see the separation that there was between God and man. There was no walking into the presence of God, you had to be clean, a Jew, a Jewish man, a male Jewish priest, and you had to be the High Priest (who was male and Jewish) to enter into God’s presence. Even then you could only do so once a year, and only at the risk of your very life.

But it all changes, and this change starts in Rev 12. We see the image of a woman giving birth to a child, and a dragon trying to devour the child. Many scholars believe that this is the Christmas story and that the child is Jesus and the dragon is the Devil. Now the devil is given authority on the earth, and thus for God to enter earth, he must do so by defeating the Devil. Thus the life of Jesus should be seen as an invasion on the earth and the power of sin and the devil. We cannot shy away from this mentality, because it is through this understanding that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are seen in the Gospels.

This understanding is carried over into the first chapter of Mark. It is here that Jesus public ministry begins. Mark 1:9-13 talks about the baptism and the 40-day period of temptation that Jesus went through before he began teaching and mentoring his disciples. But it is in here that we see a very interesting event happen. When Jesus comes out of the water, Mark (in the NIV) says in verse 10, “…(Jesus) saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descended on (Jesus) like a dove.”

The word torn is the Greek word scitzo-and it’s where we get the word schism. It means to rip or tear in a violent way. A schism is seen as an irreparable tear. Thus when God “scitzos” the heavens, he is tearing it open and what he has done is seen as not being able to be fixed.

Next in Mark 15 we find Jesus on the cross dying. In verse 37 Jesus gives up his Spirit, and we see the effects in verse 38-the curtain of the temple (as in the NIV) was ripped open. Remember that curtain was the curtain that surrounded the holy of holies, the place where God’s presence was and where it was separated from the world. The Greek used here for torn is the word scitzo. Need I say more?

Jesus death has now ripped the world wide open. No longer are we separated from the presence of God. We can, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, have communion with our creator. Where there once was separation but now there is the possibility of union. This is the power of the death of Jesus.