Sanitized Christianity

Below is a letter I just sent out to our church. I believe it might encourage and enliven your own faith, and share it with you to that end.

Redeemer,

What a gift yesterday was as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday. As I shared in my opening comments, it is a sad state when the Church doesn’t even know about the glorious celebration of the Spirit’s filling of believers. This is not to chastise other churches. Rather, it is a stiff reminder of why we do what we do when it comes to the church calendar and liturgy. It roots us deep in the rich history of the church. While so many believe they are searching for the new and fresh, it is actually the firm and tried forms the church has been practicing for millennia. Surely, there are dead expressions of this beautiful liturgy. Therefore, we want to know what and why we are doing what we do to safeguard from form without substance. We want to have the skeletal work of the liturgy with the breath of life (read “Spirit”) and muscular reflex (read “walking in the light”).
With that said, as I was preaching I was struck by the beauty of considering the utter power and creative work of the Spirit. As I looked out on our fledgling congregation, it was as if I could see the small band of disciples at Pentecost—only eleven. Yet, being filled with the same Spirit who created the world. The same Spirit who filled the Apostles to speak fervently and with full conviction. This same Spirit lives within us! Have you considered the sheer magnitude of that? Your life is not a mere appendix to the story of redemption. It is a continuation of this magnificent work to go and tell other to come and see. Every conversation you have is alive with opportunity and grace. Every glance. Every moment is resplendent with the glory and presence of God. What would our lives and our world look like with a band of disciples whose lives and decisions revolve around Jesus? Not around vacations and job promotions and being thought highly of by those we so diligently seek approval from.
So much of our Christianity in Greenville is sanitized. That is, we put the Spirit’s work in a box or in a moment. We minimize him. We relegate him to private moments. In fact, he is constantly at work. He gives us every breath we have (remember Psalm 104.29-30?). What our city needs is less concern for our preening and being made much of in the eyes of others. What our city. What our world needs is Christians who really believe, and who live in accord with that belief, that Jesus is always enough. He’s enough for our pain and suffering. He’s enough for our excitement and comfort. He’s enough for my job. He’s enough for my neighbors. He’s enough for my family. He’s enough for me.
May God fill our church with his Spirit so that the watching world will indeed say, “See what way they love one another!”
May the Lord open your eyes to the beauty of his work this week,
Matt

Abiding in Christ?

How do you abide in someone you can’t see or touch or audibly listen to? When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, was it merely for them or is it something we are called to emulate?

To the first question, Jesus most certainly expected his disciples to abide in him despite not being able to touch him and hear him and see him. After all, John 15 (where the speech comes from) is right before his crucifixion. Too often our faith is wedded to too much wooden-ness in understanding. We veer toward, “Yes, but…” Like Thomas who would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side, so also our faith is not expansive enough. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe–which leads to the second question.

Jesus prayed not only for his disciples in the Garden, but for all those who would hear the Good News from his disciples testimony. When he responded to Thomas that those who have not seen and yet believe are makarios (“blessed”), he had you and me in mind. What we see unfold in Scripture after the Resurrection is the kind of effulgent life he wants us to live…and abiding life.

So how do we abide?

I would suggest three ways.

Keeping His Word

Throughout John’s Gospel and his epistles, Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commands. Like a father who loves his child, like an older brother looking out for his younger brother, Jesus tells us how to navigate God’s world. Do we trust him enough to actually follow his steps?

This explicit teaching is what is called the Revealed Will of God. While God is constantly working in his world for his own purposes, part of that working is his condescension to tell us how to understand his world. That is, unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh determined to tell his people how to live. His Law is gracious and kind to reveal his ways to us.

All the Law hangs on Jesus’ admonition to love God and people.

Throughout the New Testament we see what it looks like to abide in Christ when we hear the Apostles telling people to put others before their own whims and preferences. We see this worked out as the Spirit comes at Pentecost and the Church extends to the uttermost parts of the world.

Led By the Spirit

It is no accident that John 16’s (continued) discourse on the preferment of the Spirit’s coming follows on the heels of Jesus’ command to abide in him. While the Law is gracious and good, we botch it up with our self-seeking and short-sightedness. We need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.

As I shared in my sermon on Sunday, there are three witnesses: water, blood, and Spirit. The first two speak to the doctrinal clarity and objective reality of who Jesus is. The third is the subjective application of these truths into the life of the believer.

Unfortunately the Spirit is equated with emotionalism and awkward and outlandish activity by those claiming to be Spirit-led. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, indeed. While the Spirit blows where he will, and does things outside our meager understanding, this does not necessarily mean that his working in incomprehensible or outlandish or alien (more on this in the third point).

What are some ways we can be led by the Spirit?

Well, he inspired the text of Scripture and has clearly spoken there. Go there.

In Ephesians 5.18, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. How? The participles that follow this command tell us how: Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Spirit is guiding and directing God’s people. Go there.

It would be good to reflect on each of these four participles and consider how you might be filled with the Spirit in ever-increasing measure. Are you speaking God’s songs over people? Are you singing to soothe the angst in your own heart? Are you grateful? Are you putting others’ needs before your own–considering them more significant than yourself?

Being Attune to God’s Working

One of my charges as a pastor is to help us see God’s continual work in the world. It is easy to wax on about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence but to deny his power and that this means right here right now. He is not all these characteristics merely in heaven. While you may say, “Obviously!” In fact, many of us affirm these aspects of God yet we live life as though he is not at work in the mundane stuff of life. We talk about him and his superintendent work int he world…but we fail to see his work in my making coffee or standing in line or talking to a stranger.

The shift in our lives happens when we see him always at work. Always. In the mundane. In the suffering and pain. In the exciting. That is God working and shaping you.

Every conversation. Every. Conversation. Is opportunity to hear God speak to you. For him to shape you. Every appointment is a “divine appointment.” He graciously guides our footsteps. The person in the checkout line needs to hear of God’s grace. Your co-worker needs to know that God loves him. The annoying neighbor needs to see God’s mercy. Your family needs to experience peace in your words and actions. These are all God’s ever-present work. His beckoning us to abide in his word and his world.

“Conquering Through Confidence” – 1John 5

God’s Love: Balancing Doctrine and Action

GUEST POST BY AUSTIN DONAHOO

On Sunday, Luke preached from the text of 1 John 4. As he aptly noted, the text itself holds many hours of sermon-worthy truths that could be studied and applied. One thing that Luke personally decided to hone in on is the idea that creeds and deeds cannot be separated into two foci, but they are understood as intertwined. While this is very true, similarly to Luke’s sermon, I would like to show how both are needed in the Christian life and will give several practical ways on how to put these two spiritual aspects into practice.

Love Shown in “Correct Doctrine”

Currently, the Church lives in an age where a great number of congregations believe that doctrine should not be a main focus of their work. They believe they should focus more on Jesus’ work in individual lives and love for their congregation (this is important). This is understandable especially in the South with its history of legalism and an attention to doctrinal detail to the detriment of loving the least of these. Pendulum switches like this, while understandable, show a misunderstanding of the reason to teach basic doctrine. Basic doctrine about God is not taught as a buffer for pride or for pure collection of knowledge, but rather it is so the Church can accurately know our Trinitarian God and be able to guard against any falsehood that threatens to attack the truth of the Gospel. As Luke stated on Sunday, “Love is understood when we truly understand God.” As the Church grows in its knowledge of the Lord, there is a greater ability to love him and others.

Love Shown in “Correct Action”

As I stated earlier, for this article I separated these two ideas of doctrine and action, but these two ideas cannot be separated. For example, if someone has a correct understanding of how God works, they will not live out the Christian life in a way that correctly relates to God and his Gospel. Luke elaborates on this when he explains, “To know love is not just informative, it is performative.” The God of all creation loved his people so much that he sent the Son to die for humanity and the Spirit to indwell in those who are of faith. It is a great blessing to hear this truth and to give it space in our consciousness, but knowledge of this reality gives way to transformation. It transforms one’s worldview and their response to the things that happen in their life. They see a job not only as a way to make money, but as an opportunity to share the Gospel and love their neighbor. They see their family not only as a biological connection, but the most important opportunity to exemplify the love of God. Understanding the Gospel leads to the greatest paradigm shift anyone can experience and it necessarily leads the Church to be the hands and feet of God’s love in practical ways throughout the whole world.  

Practical Ways to Implement “Doctrine”  

  • Study your Bible and Pray: While this may appear to be redundant, you cannot understand God if you do not study his Word and respond to him in prayer
  • Read Widely: It is helpful to read specifically theological books but all truth is God’s truth. Read old books as well as new books. Read great authors like St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, etc.
  • Learn in Community: Have consistent conversations with others (especially within your church community) about what God is teaching you.

Practical Ways to Implement “Action”

  • Serve your Family: As Paul stated in his teaching, serving the family is our first ministry. It is also the most important. God’s love is clearly shown in the workings of a family.
  • Serve your Church: Christians grow within a community. Make sure to be a part of that community by serving in areas that are able to use your gifts and talents that the Lord has provided.
  • Serve in your Community: Start with your neighbors. Find needs in your community and work to fulfill those needs. Be a light for the Gospel where you work, live, and play. Make sure to use your influence to the benefit of others and for the glory of God.