Did We Miss Something?

The hype, celebration, musical and drama presentations, high attendance records, novelty of new clothes, and family photos have already faded. Few even remember what we wore or sang yesterday. Much worse, few even noticed the horrific events in Lahore, Pakistan. I wonder sometimes if even God’s people haven’t missed the point of Easter Sunday. Every Sunday. That Sunday.

The point is not nice music and nice clothes and nice candy and nice drama and nice meals and nice children sitting nicely for a nice church service in a nice building. The point is an event that validated the radical claims of Jesus Christ. And this event gave hope to the Christian women and children whose lives ended abruptly yesterday.

A man named Jesus said he was God’s Son; said he could forgive sin; said he was the exclusive way to the Father; said he was the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in him, though he die, yet shall he live; and he based all of his incredible claims on one incredulous event — an event that hadn’t even happened yet — his own crucifixion and bodily resurrection.

And just as Jesus said he would, he walked out of a sealed and guarded tomb never to die again. And he offers eternal life to all who believe. Then he said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” He was extremely clear in his command.

But as long as we remain fixated on what we wear, how many attend our gathering, or whether we sang all the good old resurrection hymns or all the new modern ones we will continue to miss the point. And we have missed the point. We miss it nearly every week.

As the original disciples were in need of Jesus’ loving correction so are we in need of his rebuke. God, help us be teachable! Help us clothe ourselves with humility. Help us to image your holiness, grace, and love. “He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.’”

How are we doing at making disciples? We make observations, critiques, accusations, and castles of comfort, but have we made followers of the risen Christ?

Five Unexpected Profiles from John 18

Five unexpected profiles emerge from John 18. Do you see reflections of yourself in any of the profiles? John could have simply said that Jesus was unjustly betrayed, arrested, tried, and crucified. But instead, he takes eighty-four verses to unfold the drama in a striking narrative.
 
1. There is a betrayer who estimates Jesus’ worth to be thirty pieces of silver. Judas tried to gain the world but forfeited his soul.
 
2. There is a disciple armed with a sword and self-confidence who is willing to impulsively swing both. He overestimates himself in John 13 when he said he’d follow Jesus even at the cost of his own life. But now Peter faces the frailty of his own followship, and he’s not quite willing to pay the price, at least not yet.
 
3. There is a high priest and his father-in-law (a former high priest) who have put a price on Jesus’ head. Annas and Caiaphas think Jesus is worthy of death. They’ve bowed to Rome to accomplish their corrupt agenda and these two religious power-brokers will do anything to keep their wealth, power, and influence. They made it very clear that Caesar is their god.
 
4. The man who takes center-stage at this drama is a Roman governor who realizes the case brought against Jesus is groundless. He cynically asks, “What is truth?” He does not wait for an answer even though he’s interrogating “the Truth.” Pilate weighs truth in the balances and by his choices proves his moral compass is worthless.
 
5. There is an insurrectionist who sits imprisoned. He is a clear threat to Rome. His name in Aramaic means “son of the father.” Barabbas, however, will be set free as “the Son of the Father” will be unjustly condemned. This snapshot of the gospel is exactly what Peter explains in 1 Peter 3:18, “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.”
 
John 19-21 tells the rest of the story, and it’s Good News!

Preaching and God’s Glory

As I prepare to preach, having carefully exegeted the narrative in John 18, and having beheld the deity of Christ and his glory in this text, here is what is going on in my consciousness: Whether I preach to a full stadium of middle-upper class Americans with great attention on social media or to a few Nuer under an acacia tree in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan forgotten by everyone else it’s all about God’s glory, not ours. I will be content with two-thousand, two-hundred, or two gathered to glorify God through his word. It’s not about the size or composition of those gathered but God’s glory. It’s not about our gifts but God’s glory. If God is not glorified then it matters not whether we think it’s a successful gathering, with good attendance, with precise execution of service details, with fine music and fine preaching. If we have failed to glorify God then we have failed. The Father is seeking such people to worship him in spirit and truth. God alone is worthy to receive glory among every tribe and language and people and nation. Let this determine whether our gathering tomorrow morning is a success or not. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps 115:1).

Death Is Not the End

Death is not the end of anyone. Death is a doorway to eternity — a split-second transition. God made it explicitly clear in His Word that everyone will be raised from the dead, but not everyone is raised to enjoy eternal life in paradise in the presence of God (Jn 5:24-29).

“No one has power over the time of their death” (Eccl 8:8). “When that day comes, man is torn from the security of his tent, and they march him off before the king of terrors” (Job 18:14). Death is poetically personified as a king whose subjects are torn from the security of their dwelling place and marched as prisoners before him.

Before you are torn from your tent you desperately need a rescuer-redeemer because the payment for your sins is death. You need the King of kings who said as He willingly embraced suffering and death to destroy the last enemy, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn 11:25; 1 Cor 15:26).

Brothers and sisters, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31-39).

SLH

How to Help the Next Generation Navigate Difficult Questions

A rigid Christian culture neither offers honest answers nor encourages transparency, and in the long run it damages young people who are genuinely seeking answers. Jesus welcomed difficult questions and inquiries with openness and grace. Our young people who are growing up amidst a hostile secular culture have difficult questions about the existence of God, human sexuality, marriage, the use of controlling substances, secular music, the reliability of Scripture, differing forms of worship, and their disinterest in formal church structures as they’ve experienced them. These questions are rarely asked but often wrestled with, and wise parents and leaders will draw these questions and struggles out (Prov. 20:5). How can we help the next generation navigate difficult questions?

Avoid Becoming Defensive: It’s not a help to young people when older respected church-goers become defensive when their generation’s lack of love and contradictions are pointed out. In my experience I’ve found our young people desire genuine answers to life’s complexities and the church’s hypocrisy. They are seriously trying to align the grace and truth of Christ with their underwhelming religious experience, and they need to be able to voice their observations. Canned religious answers and shame tactics do nothing to resolve these tensions (Jn 9:28-34). We have failed to create a safe culture where our children can receive help to navigate vexing questions and difficult life experiences. We have failed, in part, because we have tolerated empty form and lifeless devotion so long as people’s standards align with ours and their fashion and musical tastes don’t change too much. We’ve settled for style and form without expecting any life or substance. We’ve expected our children to be comfortable walking through the museum of early nineteenth century Christian antiquity and relate with archaic language as a worship medium because that’s what our religious experience was connected to and what we’ve been comfortable with. A sign of danger is when parents’ concerns seem more attached to their child’s lack of opportunity to play their instrument on Sunday than whether their child is truly growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. We don’t even seem to care about the disconnect our children experience every Sunday and the frustration that quietly builds within them when they sense empty form and judgmentalism to the same or greater levels as to what they’ve experienced in the pagan world the week before. Our openness and honesty will encourage their openness and honesty. We need to provide genuine answers for their questions and admit our failures without becoming defensive.

Admit When Your Benchmark Is No Longer God’s Word: Are we men and women of God’s Word or have we veered away from our benchmark? Since we have believed animated gestures, bold theatrics, and a fast rate of speech in preaching are synonymous with sincerity and earnestness, we’ve expected them to believe this too. But they’ve discovered these can be disingenuous and the product of training and lifeless habit. Since we’ve believed talent and technique are synonymous with Spirit-giftedness we’ve expected our children to believe this too. But they’ve questioned the hollowness of self-serving performance in the context of local church and ministry. Since we’ve embraced decisionism and glowing statistics as true gospel effectiveness we’ve expected our children to accept this too. But they have questions about the tactics, have felt the manipulation and intimidation, and are asking if there isn’t a more wise and effective way to share Jesus with unbelievers. Our children have discerned that nominal Christians have made an idol of personal preferences and that the expectation of deference is often a one-way-road that leads directly back to them, but no Scripture is used to validate why. They have not sensed a reciprocating deference as an example of what’s expected from them. Our young people are considered unspiritual because they won’t conform to the accepted religious culture, but no Scripture is used to explain why. We have told them God’s Word is our benchmark and final authority for faith and practice, but our children have seen where this has not always been the case. As a result they question the sincerity of this conviction from those who excuse certain Scripture away because it doesn’t fit within the man-made borders of preferred Christian practice (Mt 15:2,6). We need to allow differences of opinion on matters of preference while helping them understand why a particular standard may be in place. We need to admit when we’re making wise cultural decisions in matters where godly people differ and when it really is a matter of core doctrine clearly taught in God’s Word.

Listen with Your Heart, Not Just Your Ears: Is the local church your children are part of a safe place for them to share their struggles and ask difficult questions? I am thankful for the godly influences God has brought into my children’s lives. Godly influences, both friends and leaders, are gifts of God’s grace. We must take time to listen to their concerns. We need to leave room for them to express and vent disappointments and struggles. Young people can sense if we’re approachable, fair, and gentle. They can also sense if we’re simply going to pounce on them with our standard answer without having felt their struggle. Have we cared enough to listen to those who have been watching us for years? It confuses our children when we respond with the very spirit and actions which Jesus condemned. When this happens all our truth-claims come under scrutiny, and rightly so. We undermine our children and discourage them when they show genuine passion to follow Christ and walk in His ways but are treated with suspicion and become the topic of clandestine conversations in the parking lot because their love and expression of following Christ doesn’t mirror our expected cultural norms. How do we expect them to feel when we’ve ignored them and failed to invite them to share life with us? It’s amidst the normal stuff of messy life where our children will begin to share their heart with us. But this demands we restructure our priorities and begin to spend time with them. Take time to listen with your heart, not just your ears.

Respond With Grace and Truth: How would Jesus interact with our children and answer their difficult questions? He would respond with the same grace and truth showed to the sinful woman at the well, to religious Nicodemus, to the blind man who was put out of the synagogue, to the rich young ruler, and to his disciple who rejected him. Where there is true rescue from the tyranny and guilt of sin there will also be a culture of praise, thankfulness, love, unity, humility, gentleness, acceptance, and honesty. Jesus said, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23–24). He said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus because he was full of grace and truth. People observed him and understood the loving nature of the Father. People desired to be in Christ’s presence and share life with him for a reason. There is no artificial substitute for grace and truth. It’s compelling!

Expect the Unexpected: We have assumed the next generation will simply do as they please. We have expected teenagers to be problems. But they’ve proved us wrong. They desire to share life with us and learn from us. They’ve earned our trust, and the church is growing with earnest and passionate young Christ-followers. They are beginning to example to us what worship in spirt and in truth looks like. Are we humble enough to learn from them? Our children are willing to overlook a lot they don’t prefer if they could actually experience Christ’s love, unity, humility, gentleness, and honesty lived out in the church before them. They would experience this in a variety of different ways if we would align our life with Ephesians 4:1-6: “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Grace expects the unexpected as it leaves room for God to work both in our hearts and theirs. There is great hope for the next generation of Christ-followers.

Get Back On Mission: Let’s get back on mission and begin caring less about our opinions and comforts and caring more about Christ, His Word, and the next generation who will take our place. Make disciples, and begin with the young people closest to you.

SLH

Should We Dress For Church Like We’re Meeting With the President?

I’ve often heard the argument that a person should dress for church like they’re meeting with the president. Perhaps you’ve heard a similar argument — that a pastor ought to wear a coat and tie on Sunday because NFL commentators still wear classy suits on Sunday (they wear them on Monday and Thursday night too). This argument is used by well-intentioned people, many of whom are rightfully sensitive to a drastically changing culture. However, as I consider this particular argument I come up short when trying to connect the logical and cultural leaps with theological bridges.

Here are five reasons why the meeting with the president argument fails to persuade:

  1. Frequency: How many meetings can the average person expect to have with the president? Perhaps a single five-minute appearance? Certainly that person does not expect to be granted several hours each week. Normal people would never leave a meeting after an official introduction and handshake and post on social media that they’ve become close friends with the president.
  2. Purpose: Why would a person choose to wear a suit or formal dress to meet with the president? Because (a) it’s an official meeting, (b) with a person who bears the highest human title in the country, (c) who occupies an office of far-reaching influence and power, (d) who meets with guests/strangers in a setting of high-level government, and (e) the visitor desires to make a good impression (something we never need to do with God).
  3. Reality: There is a kernel of truth that surfaces when comparing a meeting with the president to our ‘Sunday’s best’ for God. The disturbing reality of this parallel is what it actually does reflect — a sterile meeting with a stranger and the complete absence of any real relationship and transparency. This illustration exposes the nominal Christian’s relationship to God — distant, infrequent, formal, absent of any true affection, and void of any real relationship apart from an official appointment on Sunday morning. I wonder if those who use this argument wear their ‘Sunday’s best’ when they meet with God through His word on Monday morning or Thursday evening? It leaves me wondering who they are really dressing up for? Perhaps it’s a high view of the corporate gathering, or possibly it’s a disconnect stemming from a false dichotomy.
  4. Myopic Application: This illustration is short-sighted. However, if we take the comparison just a little further it actually provides a wonderful glimpse of grace. What if a person were to become friends with the president? What if they were invited to spend more time with him? What if they were given their own private room at the White House? They would enjoy time with the president in a variety of settings, perhaps seeing him wear his favorite pair of jeans, watching baseball, playing basketball, and eating a hamburger and drinking iced tea. Jesus has called us his friends (John 15:15). Our relationship with God is not a one-off-visit with a stranger who sits in the Oval Office of the West Wing of the White House.
  5. Wrong Picture: Big government and professional sports present the all-too-common misconception of what people have come to look for in a church. Success. Performance. Statistics. Technology. Glitter. Super Bowl rings. Top ten ratings. Executive power. How very far from imitating our Master we have wandered.

Here are three cautions as we reverently worship God (vertical) side-by-side in a loving multi-generational community of faith in Christ (horizontal):

  1. Don’t Dress to Impress. Don’t dress to make a statement either by dressing up or dressing down. The Sunday gathering is not about you. The counter-cultural attitude of deference and humility must guide our choices (1 Pet 5:5). Jesus-followers are never called to imitate the big business of professional sports or the big money of high-power executive positions. Jesus highlighted the danger of using dress code to impress. Matthew 23:5 “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” As we are careful not to dress to impress, let us also learn to look deeper than the surface story people are telling us by their appearance.
  2. Don’t Dress to Distract. It is our responsibility to guard the glory of God when we are gathered in His name. We should avoid wearing anything that could cause others to be distracted from the main reason we’ve gathered. Dressing obnoxiously trendy can be just as distracting as arriving overtly formal. Reverence for God is a non-negotiable when we gather in His name. “…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Yet, reverence is a spirit more than it is an external code. There should be a sense of carefulness as we gather for worship, but this too will play itself out differently. Even if we’ve isolated our context to the local church’s gathering on Sunday morning our choices still contain a high level of subjectivity. Some people don’t like the subjectivity of trusting other people to make decisions as they walk under the influence of God’s Spirit, in part, because this fails to construct visible walls, it doesn’t offer a higher tier of spirituality based on externals, and it refuses to provide a dress code for church gatherings. Obviously, the church is not a beach, but neither is it a corporate complex. The principles of appropriateness and modesty must guide our choices (1 Cor 12:23; 1 Tim 2:9-10), but dress-code should never be used to create a line of division or a platform of judgment.
  3. Don’t Judge Others According to their Dress. I wonder how often we’ve done exactly what James told us not to do as followers of Christ? “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (Jam 2:1-4). So often it seems we want a fortress where the overlooked and underprivileged aren’t allowed through the front gate, and where outcasts are denied membership and are silently pushed out of our designer label kingdom.

Jesus didn’t seek professionals when He chose the Twelve. His initial disciples were sunburnt and sweaty; they had calloused hands and they reeked of fish. Peter (one of those men) communicated a general principle about external adorning. Even though he was specifically offering instruction regarding women’s appearance we are given clear principles regarding where the emphasis ought to be placed. “Do not let your adorning be external—… the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart…” (1 Pet 3:3-4). The point is clear — no matter what you wear, be sure you have given priority to “the hidden person of the heart.” Peter wrote, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Pet 5:5). What does this look like on Sunday morning?

  • The man in the coat and tie doesn’t cast the accusations of ‘worldly’ and ‘irreverent’ at the young professional wearing jeans.
  • The young university student wearing chinos refrains from casting the silent accusation of ‘legalist’ and ‘hyper-traditionalist’ towards the gentlemen wearing a dark suit and tie.
  • The lady who has only worn ankle-length dresses to church does not treat with suspicion the young lady wearing a more stylish and trendy outfit.
  • The young woman who has no clue what culottes are does not treat with contempt the woman and her daughters who may choose to wear them.

The Scripture does not hand us a New Covenant dress code for worship. But we do have God’s Spirit in us. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:18, 22-24). Modesty, humility, deference, and appropriateness serve as helpful guides. God is glorified in diversity and unity when people limit their liberties and shape their attitudes according to His word (Rom 14). In light of similar teaching about liberty and conscience Paul exhorts, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

SLH