Brief Thoughts on Church Membership (altogether incomplete)

I have been reflecting on the subject of church membership for the last few weeks. This stems from planting a church and having folks join who are members of existing churches. This also stems from folks who joined our church plant and have moved their membership–both issues had to do with distance to our new location and a desire to be involved in a more specific way to those who attend another church for purposes of ministry (both great reasons!).

My thoughts haven’t just been a result of circumstances. Rather, they come from a desire to think theologically about this issue.

First, I want to make clear that membership in a local church is the primary means of discipleship in the Christian journey. We make commitments to others to love and serve and be loved and be served by others. It is a beautiful and necessary commitment that we take way too lightly.

BUT too often pastors and church leaders speak about church membership in very unhelpful terms. We speak about it being like a marriage. It most certainly is not. It is not a covenant either. Scripture speaks about our membership in the Body of Christ. The local congregation is a physical manifestation of that reality. Everything we do is in the context of local–geographically and temporally. My fear is that church bodies can begin to assume that members of a local congregation cannot leave. Much like the Hotel California, people are often guilted in staying. People are made to think they are being less committed to the mission of the Church (yes, that’s a large C, signifying the Church Universal).

We have a membership class coming up for Redeemer in a few weeks. I take great pains to help people see that our congregation is one among many faithful churches in time and space. We do not have a corner on the market of faithfulness. We are one very small player on the great stage of history. The more we recite this truth, the more humble and grateful we will become. Every time we say this, we are reminded that God’s purposes are much larger than us. We are reminded that we have certain proclivities and characteristics that may set us apart by way of trends and passions. We are reminded that there are many other brothers and sisters seeking to do the same thing as us–take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus (individually and corporately).

One of the things I make sure to tell people is that if they want to make a commitment to be a member of Redeemer, it ought to be based on it mission and vision. We try to keep it very simple, as you’ll see from our website. How we go about accomplishing these things are called our Core Values. That’s how we seek to accomplish the vision right now in 2018.

But the Church is an organization, but it is also a living organism. As with all organisms, change is inevitable. Indeed, it is desired. As human beings we necessarily grow and change if we are alive. It is inherent to the very definition of life. Change is beautiful. Inevitably, our church will grow as people are added to our congregation. This is beautiful because it enables and empowers people to contribute their gifts and passions to the whole, and for the whole to shape the particular person.

Over time, there may be people who have changes of convictions for how “to do” church. That is, they may disagree with our emphasis on church planting, mission, and mercy. They may disagree with our commitment to simplicity. At the end of the day, as a pastor I want people to be freed to serve and be served by others. If they are staying at Redeemer just because they made a commitment in 2018, that is not healthy. Rather, my desire is that they be involved. Intimately involved in the growth and development of our church. If they cannot do so, it is healthier that they find a congregation where they can faithfully live out their convictions.

This doesn’t have to be an ugly thing. Rather, it can be a very beautiful thing where we are again reminded and remind each other that we do no have a corner on the market of biblical fidelity. Jesus promised to build his Church. I get to be a small observer in that construction project–stone upon stone.

We want people to be a part of Redeemer who believe in the vision and mission and who want to play an integral part in seeing that vision become a reality in our small corner of the universe. So when folks leave, we don’t need to guilt them. Sure, we will miss folks as they leave, but may we depart to meet again.

“Baptized in Suffering” – 1Peter 3.18-22

Yesterday was the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Epiphany began with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, Lent begins with Jesus’ baptism in suffering. What kind of solace does the Apostle Peter give to Christians around 64AD who were being persecuted and killed at the hands of the wicked Caesar Nero?

1Peter 3.18-22

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Wherever there is suffering for the Gospel, the beauty of the Gospel is proclaimed.

The Nature of Suffering

We could deny that it exists, like some Eastern religions do. We could try and reinterpret it, that suffering is actually good, like popular psychology does. The short answer in the Judeo-Christian worldview is that suffering and pain are a result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Given the choice to live life under God’s rule or under their own rule, suffering and pain resulted from choosing to throw off God’s rule and opt for our own.

But the suffering we experience isn’t by our decisions all the time, are they? And on a macro-level, the answer is still the same. The suffering we experience is because people choose to live their lives in reference to themselves and their kingdom. But that merely answers the question in the abstract.

I do want to put our suffering in perspective to our brothers and sisters around the globe. And specifically during this first 300 years of the church’s existence.

If you haven’t heard of it, there is a ministry called Voice of the Martyrs. It is a ministry that intercedes and seeks to relieve the suffering of our brothers and sisters all over the world. I went on the webpage on Friday to see about any news. These three stories were just posted on Friday:

Five Khmu believers in Laos were arrested and fined for holding a Christmas celebration on Dec. 15. The Christians had received permission from village authorities, but district officials arrested them after learning they had invited a pastor from a neighboring village. The five believers were held in prison for a few nights and fined about $600 before being released.

Christian widows whose husbands were killed in Islamist attacks are gradually returning to their coastal Kenyan homes. After an attack in June 2014 in which Islamists went door to door killing Christians, Naomi and her four children fled to her parents’ home in another village.

After focusing on an unreached area for the past 11 months, an evangelist has seen hundreds of Muslims come to faith in Christ. As a result, some have experienced persecution. A young married couple took shelter in a VOM-supported safe house for several months when they were kicked out of their family because of their Christian faith.

 

This is not about guilt, friends, this is about putting our lives in perspective. Putting our coconut milk latte with extra foam on notice.

Not only now, but the situation into which Peter was writing was even more tenuous. This epistle was written during the time of Nero’s reign (54-68). He was notorious for his extravagance and evil. He killed his own mother. And he accused the Christians for a fire that decimated Rome in 64. So Peter is writing to a group of believers wrongly accused of arson and being killed to rescue the skin of a wicked emperor. What comfort does he afford them?

The verses right before our passage tell us…and they really put into perspective how we ought to view suffering and pain.

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

Peter says you have one job: Honor Christ. Don’t try to figure out what God is doing. Just know he is pleased with you when you honor him.

And we come to our passage today that provides the support for suffering for doing good. For Christ suffered for sin. If it is God’s will for you to suffer unjustly, for doing good!…it is better. Because Christ suffered.

Our suffering is derivative of Christ’s suffering. He was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for sins. We often can think of how thankful we are for being saved from our sins, but we forget the injustice at which it came. No cursing was found on his lips. He blessed those who scourged him. He forgave those who killed him. He loved to the uttermost. He was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

He suffered on account of sin. The Righteous One for those who are Unrighteous. While we were still enemies, Christ died for us. While we were still reviling and cursing, he bid us to come to him. When we were still kicking, he opened our eyes. So that we could see. So that we could be brought to God. He suffered not merely at the hands of others. He suffered in order to bring those very ones to God.

Jesus died. He actually died. His body got cold. A body in a morgue. But he was resurrected by the Spirit. The next layer of suffering Peter draws out is how God uses it to proclaim to those who are in prison to sin. Verse 19 has been a hot topic of debate. Who are these spirits in prison? The early church believed them to be the spirits in the realm of the dead. Scholars today believe them to be the angels that rebelled against God and God declared himself powerful over death in the Resurrection. The third option is the one the Protestant Reformers held. Through Noah’s faithfulness and suffering in the face of persecution, the Gospel of Grace and Judgment was preached. But there is a fourth option! My answer to this is that it is a little bit of all three. When Jesus was resurrected in the Spirit, he proclaimed his victory over demons and death. This victory was proclaimed to all things in heaven and under the earth. This victory was the final and full proclamation of God’s victory over principalities and powers (look at V.22!). Before Jesus came God had been whispering this truth of his victory through installments–Abel, Noah, Abraham, David. All those who had been vindicated through their suffering to declare God’s power and love were foretastes and preachers of this same victorious message Jesus proclaims in his resurrection.

But this is the tree branch. The great oak tree of Peter’s argument is that suffering proclaims the Gospel to a watching world. Noah is merely one example of the Gospel being proclaimed that God is King over all. And just as Jesus, through the Spirit was proclaiming the Gospel through Noah’s suffering…so also, the suffering the Christians are unjustly going through proclaims the Gospel in Rome. We see this in Acts 5 and 6 where the Apostles were beaten in (5.40) and “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus” and then a few verses later we see that “the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (6.7).

Suffering demonstrates the worth of another. Not just enduring suffering, but embracing it as God’s means of sanctifying you and changing you and helping you see that he is more valuable than the comfort you seek.

The Nature of Baptism

This suffering is what is symbolized through baptism. Our second sentence and point. When we baptize someone, we submerse them under water. We don’t sprinkle. Why? It symbolizes the death they have undergone the Flood as it were. And then the believer is raised to life in the Spirit.

This has been a contentious issue for the last 500 years. I want to first remind us that the early church practiced both modes of baptism—baptism for infants and baptism after conversion. They allowed the parents to make the decision up as to what they would allow them to do. We see this in the life of St. Augustine—who his mother Monica deferred his baptism and he would be baptized as an adult.

But before that, we believe the first believers practiced baptism following conversion to Christ and it wasn’t until after the church became the state religion under Constantine that baptism became a rite for infants.

What is more, the witness of Scripture compels me in this direction.

I have many friends who are in other denominations and we disagree on this passage, but let me lay out for you a couple issues that make it impossible for me to baptize babies.

First, the issue of “baptism saving you.” If we stopped there, then we could say that baptism is salvific. But Peter doesn’t stop there, does he. Remember, there are a several layers to Peter’s sentence: V.21 Baptism, which corresponds to this [that is, Noah passing through the waters], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The text literally reads: “A good conscience in answer unto God.” And so, baptism is for those who answer God’s call to them.

This is why Baptism happens after someone has made a decision to follow Christ. This is his or her answer to God stemming from a good conscious decision to submit the life to Jesus.

Secondly, take into consideration the parallel itself. Those eight people on the boat with Noah had to decide to get on the boat. They weren’t coerced. They weren’t carried. They were told of the impending destruction, and they followed Noah onto the boat.

But this is also a branch on the tree of Peter’s argument, isn’t it? The Nature of Baptism is that we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord over all facets of my life. Jesus commands my destiny.

The point of the Flood was to wash the earth of its wickedness. The point of baptism is to show that we have been washed clean by the Spirit. Our soiled souls have been dipped in blood. They have been dipped in the ever-flowing river of God’s forgiveness.

At every baptism, the heavens open up. There’s a bow in the clouds reminding us that God has not and will not deal with us as our sins deserve. The clouds open up and declare you a child of God. Never to be orphaned. The heavens open up and proclaim that even your suffering proclaims the value and worth of your Savior. You may suffer for doing good, but God would remind you to flee to him and know that your one job. Your one job is not merely to do the right thing. It is to find your delight and satisfaction in Another—namely, Jesus, so that when you suffer, you will be counted worthy to suffer for that great name.

 

Questions to Consider:

Take time to pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering and being persecuted around the world.

How does Jesus’ preeminent baptism in suffering bring solace and comfort in the midst of ours?

What’s the difference between suffering and suffering for the Gospel?

What steps of faith might God be calling you to take that you have been afraid to take because you do not want to suffer for the Gospel (loss of friends, notoriety, comfort)?

First Sunday of Lent 2018 – a poem

Walking in the woods one groggy and misty morning,
I happened upon a crossroad not seen before
I had walked this path before
Perhaps the ivy had covered the cross
Perhaps the mildewing leaves
Perhaps my preoccupied thoughts of grandeur and worry and pain and listlessness

Just the same—

It stared at me.

 

This cross
road

 

No, it beckoned me these two paths that split from my routine path
It called my name to travel to the left
The narrow path
But should I go to the right?
What should I do?
So I sat and thought and worried and reasoned.

I closed my eyes.
Held my breath.
And ran to the left.
I ran.
I sprinted.
I stumbled.
I fell.

Looking up I see a chasm.
A cave.
A dwelling in the side of the hill.
I descend to its darkness and gasp for fear

I descend. Into the darkness. Into the wonder. Into the pain. Into the mire. Into the pit.

There’s a strangeness here. A comforting strangeness.
As though this is my home and yet a place I have not visited before.
A place where no light was left on to lead me.
A place where my heart yearned to go.
Like the smell of hot chili on a cold night. Or baked apple pie on the window sill.
But I find dead men’s bones who have ventured here before.

Still.
In the stillness.
In the death.
I find a comfort.
I find the soil breaking forth with light and heat and life.
As a stalk of wheat pushing through the soil.

To this I was called.
This beckoning.
Like a Father soothing the fear and a mother wiping the tears.
I weep.
Not like an uncontrollable sobbing.
But definitely not contrived.
A deep hurt. A deep cut. To the bone.
Dividing marrow and sinew and ligament and soul.

Breaking.
In the breaking.
In the pain.
I find a healing.
I find the roots of joy spreading deep in the earth with grace and peace and resolve.

This chasm and pit and pain and remorse
For what I have done
For that I have left undone
This darkness.
This emptiness is where I find the filling.

The Spirit welling up from within and spilling without
—Without me
In spite of me

In my death, there is my life
In my pain, there is my solace
In my hurt. Darkness. Chasm.
Therein the deep wells of my Maker.

No amount of trite answers
Superficial balm
Earthly comforts
These cannot stave the pain of the hunger I have longed to fill

 

It is in the emptiness that I am full.


NOTE: For some reason WordPress doesn’t transfer the spacing of the lines. I believe this conveys my intention better. So here is a .pdf of the poem. I hope it blesses you.

First Sunday of Lent 2018

“Tearing the Veiled Mountain” – Mark 9.2-10

Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday. This is the culmination of the season of Epiphany and in essence serves as the hinge upon which our call to follow Jesus takes a sober turn. For the last several weeks we have been focusing on Jesus’ magnificent call to follow him. Some of us heeded that call because of the excitement and our eyes being opened to the reality of eternal life–on earth as it is in heaven.

Leading up to this passage we need to keep in mind two things: (1) Jesus’ call is a reconfiguration, a re-orbiting of our small worlds so that we realize the magnitude of living in reference to God. To live the life he intended for his creatures from the beginning–to know him and love him. (2) Life with Jesus begins with death to ourselves. Mark 9.2ff comes on the heels of Jesus’ first of three foretellings of his impending death. In this way, the Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus’ glory is not in spite of his crucifixion, but it is his glorification. The mighty and Shining One on the mountain is the same as the Crucified One.

 

Why a mountain?

V.2: Jesus leads his three closest disciples up a high mountain alone. A mountain is the place where God reveals himself to his people. Abraham at Mt. Moriah. Moses sees the burning bush at Mt. Horeb and receives the tablets of God’s words on Mt. Sinai—which are the same mountain. David builds the city of Jerusalem on Mt. Zion. Elijah defies the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel.

The mountains in Scripture are the places of God revealing himself and his purposes to his people. This is no less the fact of what Jesus does. He is not doing anything new and different but follows in the train of God himself in revealing his purposes to his people. Note: It is God who leads each of these individuals to a mountain. Here we see God incarnate leading his people anew.

 

Why Elijah and Moses?

Why not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos?

Elijah

It is important to understand Elijah’s role in the history of redemption. It is more than just that Elijah was the greatest of the prophets—for we read that Elisha had a double portion of the Spirit. Consider our passage read earlier.

There are three separate places that Elijah leads Elisha before he is taken away in a heavenly chariot.

The land of Bethel—lit., “the house of God”—where Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending on a ladder and that Jesus said he would be.

The land of Jericho where the great battle of God’s redemption by trumpet blasts took place. God’s defeat of an enemy by his initiative and power independent of military prowess.

The Jordan River he split in two. The same Jordan that Jesus was baptized in and became our New Joshua to lead us into the Land of Promise we looked at the first Sunday of Epiphany.

Moses

Moses infamously receives the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. And is the one who led Israel to the banks of the Jordan River. He is the one who brought them through the wilderness and onto the edge of God’s multi-generational promise. Both Moses and Elijah suffered because of Israel’s rebellion. They were both rejected by God’s people to lead them. But they were both vindicated by God—to be shown to be in the right.

Elijah also heard from God at Mt. Sinai. Remember he was running away from wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel? He cried out to God: “I am the only prophet left!” God had to tell him that there were 500 other prophets that hadn’t left the faith. What is more, he had forgotten Moses’ very words in Deuteronomy 18.15: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”

It is here that we see two of the greatest leaders in Israel’s history taking a backseat to Jesus.

This is made even more clear in the bright white shining of Jesus’ clothes. Whenever Moses would meet with God, his face would shine. Here we see the entirety of Jesus’ body in bright, other worldly white. And Elijah and Moses just fade into the background in light of Christ’s brightness.

Moses’ Veiled Ministry

Our Epistle reading today was from 2Cor 4 which follows on the heels of the Apostle Paul’s explanation of the passing glory of Moses’ ministry. Indeed, a ministry that pointed to a greater fulfillment in the One to Come.

Whenever Moses would meet with God his face would shine…and he would put a veil over his face. This veil kept the people from gazing at Moses as the substance of the promise. He was merely the one pointing to Another. He was the Bride pointing to the Groom. He was the recipient from the Gracious Giver. It was not and never was supposed to be Moses as the finalization of God’s promises.

From the beginning of Moses’ writing of Genesis all the way through Deuteronomy, we read about a coming Son of God a Coming Seed of the Woman who would right all the wrong. Seth was not him. Noah was not him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Saul, David, Elijah, Hezekiah…all failed. All fell when temped in the wilderness. All pointed to the Shining One.

They were veils and shadows of the Reality.

This veil is lifted. Listen to Paul (2Cor 3.14-16):

For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

Don’t forget that this Transfiguration happens right after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Why?

Suffering is not in spite of the glory revealed on the mountain. It is the glory that is the cross. At Mt. Calvary. The Mountain of God’s suffering for us to make us new. His death to free us.

This suffering not only lifted the veil, it tore the veil on the Temple Mount to see the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.

Friends, it is not only that he died, but that he rose again. He rose not only to show his victory over our looming enemy Death. He rose again to give us victory over ourselves. Our self-serving attitudes. Our self-centeredness. In our taking up of our cross daily, we save our lives.

His Transfiguration. His being Transformed assures us that the cross—our daily taking up our crosses—is not the end. It is not defeat. It is in the dying that we find the lives we’ve been looking for.

Paul continues in 2Cor 3:

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

The beauty of the Gospel is not only that we are forgiven of our sin—which is glorious!—it is that we ourselves are being transfigured from one degree of glory to another! The Spirit has been given to us to transform us. To transfigure us into the self-same image of the glorious Christ.

You may feel downcast or defeated or listless and bored in life. You were made for more. You were made to reflect this glory we see on the Mountain of Jesus’ Transfiguration. And there beholding his glory, we are transfigured.

And I ended my sermon by singing these familiar words:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace

Questions to Consider:

How does Jesus’ Transfiguration give us hope in the face of suffering and death and pain?

Why do you think it’s easy to forget that death is the pre-requisite to life?

Are there ways which boredom or frustration or the mundane of everyday life have crowded out the glorious life God has called you to? How might the Gospel of forgiveness and life help you lift your eyes up ? How might this same Gospel free you to serve?