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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.

Seen and Heard and Manifest – 1John 1


We start a five-week walk through the Beloved Apostle John’s first letter. As you may have noticed, there was no OT reading in our service today. This is due to the emphasis in the church calendar to consider what the resurrection of Jesus means for the Church. That is, we read from Acts instead of the OT during this season right after the Resurrection—a forty-day period that ends on Pentecost Sunday. 

You’re going to notice several aspects in this letter that I want you to be aware of before I read our passage today. Each of these elements should be read as a continuation of John’s Gospel. As we work through it together, I will reference some of these elements from John’s Gospel, but of course will not be able to mention all of them.

The earthiness of the Christian faith

Light and Darkness

Love and Obedience

Abiding in God

Singular devotion

It would be beneficial to read John’s Gospel in one hand and 1John in the other. 

1John 1

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

5   This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Eternal life is about life right now…on earth. John 17.3: “This is eternal life…they know you God.” It is, of course, life with God in the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells. But that life is a fulfillment of and a continuation of the eternal life that we start to live here on earth. Have you considered that the new eyes and new heart and new life you have received by the Spirit of God when you first came to know God is the heart, mind, and life you will enjoy God forever? 

We see this earthiness of the life we have from the beginning of John’s letter. Verses 1-3. Note the senses involved in what John conveys to his readers: Heard. Seen with our eyes. Touched with our hands. That which we have seen and heard we proclaim. 

At the time John was writing this letter, there were the beginnings of a heresy going around called Docetism. It comes from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to see.” This teaching taught that God did not really and truly become human, but that he only appeared to do so. This is the easy way to reconcile really hard teaching in the Christian life. We try to make it palatable and understandable—confining it to our finite mind. How can the Infinite become finite? Well, it can’t therefore it only appears to be finite. He’s a mirage. BUT this is not the Christian way. Earth is not bad. Soil is not unclean. The entire Creation is resplendent with Christ’s glory. The Creator. 

This is why John tells us that the Resurrected Jesus ate fish for breakfast with his disciples. And this is why he is at pains to show us that the very same eternal Word of God from the first chapter of his Gospel—“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” This self-same God blessed bread and ate it. He was baptized. He took baths. He changed clothes. He cried real tears and laughed real laughter. “That which was from the beginning”  was made manifest—he not only appeared…he ate and drank and sang.

If we’re not careful, we can make our faith very ephemeral. Disconnected from the stuff of life. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are meant to float on clouds above the cares of the world. But the beauty of the Gospel is that it redeems men and women. It manifests itself by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving sight to the blind. 

The Christian faith is not one disconnected from reality. The physical manifests the spiritual. The spiritual necessarily works itself out in flesh and blood. The very story of all of our salvation comes through the hearing of the proclaimed message. Without the hammer, anvil, and stirrup of the ear, there can be no confessing with the tongue. Embracing this reality helps us to see the utterly practical nature of the Gospel. The Christian life is not merely about ideas and knowledge…it is about life. Yes, eternal life. 

Verse 5 serves as the banner over the rest of the chapter. This is the message we have…

This earthiness works itself out with the conditions John walks through in the second half of our text. A list of five (5) conditional statements show the importance of what we do with our hands and mouths and eyes. 

Verse 6: If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, [then] we lie and do not practice the truth.

John is at pains to show that allegiances are black and white. To use his terminology—light and darkness. You cannot live in the shadows and say you are in the light. This is a HUGE tendency here in our culture where people walked down and aisle or raised a hand or even led a Bible Study for some time. As time goes on, the true allegiances of the heart are brought to the light. When this happens that person has to reckon with their true allegiance. Will they bring it out into the light or will they retreat into the dark and keep their sin safe and secure. 

As God invites us to deeper intimacy, he’s beckoning us into more light. To be closer to him. This oftentimes comes through adversity. 

By virtue of living and breathing you are doing. We are constantly doing something. Either we are lying or we are, literally, “doing the truth”. The truth of the Christian life is lived out. It is acted upon, not merely a truth to be ascended to. It is a truth that grabs you and moves you.

We will see next that abiding in Christ (in the light) means abiding in his community. 

Verse 7: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 

This is the converse of the previous verse. We see that living the Christian life is a perpetual walking and breathing. It is much like what we will be seeing this summer. In case you haven’t noticed, I am a pretty pasty white guy. When Ashley and I first got married, I learned just how much of a sun baby she was. We went to the beach with her family one July 4th week and I wanted to show her that I could hang with her and all the other sun worshipers, so I laid on the beach for several hours. My prior length of time in the sun was about 30 minutes. That night, I couldn’t hold any food down. I had sun poisoning. You go to the beach and you can tell those who have been in the sun longer than those who haven’t. The Christian life is one of living in the light and being changed from one shade of glory to another. 

Verse 8: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 

To guard us from pride and from thinking that walking in the light means we are without sin, John reminds us that the emphasis of the Christian life is the sun that shines on us. We do not produce the light. We walk in the light. God is not expecting you to manufacture some kind of inherent goodness within you. You have, indeed, been made in the image of God…but the life we are called to live is one of enjoying and basking in the glory of Another. In this way we see that the light is a safe place to show that we have blemishes. We have imperfections. We have sin. This is one of the purposes of the light. 

To take the previous illustration a little further, but hopefully not too far!, when I get in my bathing suit this summer, those around me will see my imperfections. More specifically, they will see moles on my skin. This could be an embarrassing thing, or it could be a protection for me. Imagine that my dear wife sees a mole on my back that I cannot see. She sees it in May at the beginning of the summer and then she notices in August that that mole has changed shape. It’s grown! “Hey Babe, you probably need to go to a dermatologist.” Not merely to change the way we look as we walk in the Light, but it points out things that can be detrimental to us. 

The light is a place we can be healed. It shows us our imperfections and it overwhelms us by Jesus’ perfection and love for us in light of that sin. This is the point of the next verse! The point of being brought to the light is to be healed. To be cleansed. To be set free. Not to condemn.

Verse 9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

But the ability to confess is often avoided because we don’t like to admit how messed up we are. You and I can hear this beautiful news this morning, that we are loved and accepted and welcomed by God and yet run away from the very place he wants to do his work of surgery. 

Verse 10: If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

If we lie and say we don’t have sin, then we make him a liar. Takes our lives up a notch. God wants to live his life through you. The Christian life is meant to be a life of congruence. One of integrity. One of honesty. There is safety here. There is healing here. The sooner and the more frequent we make these confessions, the more opportunity we have for healing. Instead of wishing the mole would go away or simply because we can’t see it we claim that it doesn’t exist. The Gospel gives us the courage and confidence to confess and come to the only place that it can be healed.

But we have to ask why does John speak so candidly and directly about living in the light and a life of integrity? Why? He gives three reasons in this text. And we’ll work backward.

Verse 9 is so that, quite simply, we will be cleansed and be forgiven. God is standing at the ready to forgive even the most heinous sin in your life. He is faithful when you have been faithless. Maybe you have been walking in dark. He standing ready to receive you! He will make good on his word to forgive you. He is just. What he says, he will surely do. He split the Red Sea. He resurrected his Crucified Son. Will he not surely receive you and wash you?

John has a second reason in Verse 4. It’s a self-serving reason in some respects. He proclaims the glory of the Gospel so that his joy may be complete…brought to its fullness. Have you considered that the folks you and I interact with everyday can bring you joy? They are not meant to merely be hindrances to your joy. Even though you may think so many days. They are God’s means to bring you even more joy. Every time you draw near to that one who is unlovely or annoying, seeking to enjoy the Light with them, your joy is magnified. Like a magnifying glass on an ant, the joy burns up those tiny annoyances in our lives. 

John gives one more reason in Verse 3. It’s not just about bringing someone to the Light, as in a “See, I told you so!” Rather, this magnification of our joy, the bringing to its fullness is when we are changed and fellowship with one another. As each of us is along the way we are being changed, shade by shade…and the beauty and sufficiency and glory of the sun helps us enjoy all that he has for us even more!

The Christian life is meant to be lived in community with others. We shortchange our joy when our faith is merely about me and Jesus.