United by Blood

(excerpt from a recent sermon on Joshua 22)

 

This story is not a conflict between two individuals. It is a conflict between tribes. It is a nation divided, first by a river, then by a misunderstanding. It is a conflict among tribes based on decisions that have been made, for better or worse. There is a need to move forward in grace, truth, peace, and love. I want to look today at the modern Israel, the church. I want to look at the church as she often stands today, a body divided. A body divided based on decisions that have been made, beliefs that have been adopted, for better or worse. There is still a need to move forward in grace, truth, peace, and love.

But what do you mean, Bob? I thought everything in the church was perfect?

I thought that when you gather bunches of sinners together, they would only ever come to unanimous agreements in Jesus’ name?

I searched online and found 23 local churches. 23 bodies who gather in the name of Jesus Christ for worship. Within these 23, at least a dozen denominations. What is a denomination? It is a group of people who arrived at a Joshua 22 moment.  A group of people who, in the end, chose division. They decided that their identity in worship had been compromised, and a separation was necessary. Hopefully without war, but still.

What have they divided over? Large issues. Smaller issues. Some movements were born out of disagreement. Some were born out of a desire to chase a particular aspect of the faith. All place their roots in the person and work of Jesus Christ, though most can’t seem to agree what that means.

Christians have divided over:

Justification – what does it mean to be right before God? How does one become right before God?

Communion – what does it mean that Christ is present at the table?

Baptism – what does it mean to be baptized? How exactly do we use the water? Do we dunk? Do we sprinkle?

The person of the Holy Spirit? What exactly is he up to?

Musical instrumentation – organs, guitars, nothing at all? What instrument did Peter play?

Government – one elder, lots of elders, deacons, priests? Are they men, women, both? What should they wear – robes, jeans – what kind of jeans?

Bible translations – KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT, NASB, RSV, Da Jesus Book.

So when you go looking for a church these days, you have to bust out your checklist:

I’m looking for a church that:

Serves gluten free communion with grape juice.
Dunks believers in a body of natural water.
Employs two acoustic guitars and a djembe.
Has a pastor in boot cut jeans, sweater vests, a giant fish necklace and a scripture tattoo on his wrist.
Has Sunday school and cell groups.
Teaches from the NIV
Loathes powerpoint.

Meanwhile, somewhere in there you think about doctrine, kids ministry, the building, parking, location, mission, vision, whether they serve coffee and donuts, whether they allow you to pump gas in your car on Sunday, whether you are required to home school your children, and the list. Goes. On.

Then we get inside the church and we have a different checklist for every person we encounter!? Do I want to be their friend? Well…

 

No wonder people don’t understand American Christianity. Most of the time we don’t even understand what we’re doing and why.

Oddly, I’m not saying Christians are not unified. Also, I’m not saying that there aren’t varied blessings in these different expressions of the Church. If given the chance to sit down and think about it, I’m sure many if not most would agree that there is unity where there should be unity. At the cross.

However, our gut thoughts, words, and actions are not often guided by careful thought. The human heart is deceitful above all things. The Christian heart is engaged in a struggle. The question I pose to each of your hearts is this: when you think of the other tribes in your town, do you think first of the Christ who unites us, or do you think first of the differences? And as a result, do you immediately place them on the same level ground before Christ, or is your ground just a little higher? Do you want to hear stories of triumph from their fellowship? Or does jealousy burn? Are you building a delegation to find answers? Or just going to war? These questions challenge me.

 

As long as what unites us has not been compromised, what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.

 

Ephesians is a great book of unity. Chapter 2 pleads for unity between Gentile and Jew. In other words, regardless of your background, if you are in Christ, you are on equal footing with everyone else who has ever trusted the Savior. You are a sinner saved by grace through faith. Chapter 4 reminds us there is ONE body, ONE Spirit, ONE hope, ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God & Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

Unity, Unity, Unity. Blessed together, battling the flesh and the devil together.

Ephesians 4:11 says that God gave us the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip and mobilize the body of Christ IN UNITY. The irony of church is that the more we study, the more we know, the more we teach, the more we seem to divide, but Spirit-driven teaching is designed to bring us together at the intersection of justice and mercy! Oh, may it be so!

Lines have been drawn. Just as with our Israelite brothers & sisters, the decisions have been made, for better or worse. We must now draw on our identity as worshipers of the one true God through Jesus Christ so that we can move forward with grace & truth, peace and love.

Christians of every walk and flavor will spend eternity together. Folks from every church on that list.

We will be much better suited for our forever if we learn to love one another now. We grow as we walk together.

This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about our differences. In fact, we must! But we must also know that as long as our identity in worship has not been compromised, what unites us is far stronger than what divides us. For Christians, when disagreements arise, it is the cross that holds us together. It is worship of our risen Savior that unites. The blood of Jesus is stronger.

 

I’ve heard it said that you’re not ready for revival in your church until you’re ready to see revival in the church next door. In other words, if we’re not comfortable seeing God bless the church down the street, the church who – though they disagree – stand united to ours by grace through faith in Christ alone. If we’re not comfortable seeing God increase that church, then we’re not ready for him to increase ours. If we’re not comfortable seeing their congregation impact the culture through Christ. If we’re not comfortable seeing families brought together and marriages restored in their ministry. If we’re not comfortable seeing addicts find freedom there through the gospel. If we’re not comfortable seeing wounds healed and lives restored.

If we’re not comfortable with all of this happening down the road, then how are we ready for God to bring the charge and the blessing to us?

How wonderful would it be if we, as Christians, would pray for God to bless the faithful tribes with whom we share a zip code. We may be separated by streets or a creek, but we cling to the same cross as the faithful saints all over the world. Would you pray this morning?

That the gospel would be faithfully proclaimed. That the Lord Jesus Christ would be honored and magnified in their worship. That the people would find joy in Christ, that ministries would thrive. That pastors would rightly understand and preach the truth of Scripture. That people would approach with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And pray through it all that we would have a heart to find joy in God’s victory there, peace in our conversations, grace and truth in our relationships.

I am thankful today for the gracious witness of our Israelite brothers and sisters in Joshua 22. I am thankful that tribes divided by rivers and misunderstandings would go to such great lengths to preserve right worship and prevent civil war. I am thankful that they did so under the banner of their identity in God. May we do the same as we draw near under the witness of the cross of Christ.

 

 

 

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The Church, She Ain’t Dumb

Occasionally, something as simple as an Amazon review can point out broad and deep issues in the church. Usually, though, it is not the reviews which “cleverly” aim to uncover issues that are actually successful. Instead, candid comments often provide a more realistic thermometer (or perhaps a barometer? My expertise in meteorological hardware is somewhat limited) of current trends and views.

For example, I read a review last night for a commentary which has sparked a mild rant in need of online venting.

Background: I was invited to preach at a Junior High Youth Camp this summer (check it out! Suncrest Camp). After careful consideration, I feel compelled to preach through the book of Esther. Ten messages. Ten chapters. It’s almost too easy. Of course, it is also the book about which Martin Luther said, “I am so hostile to this book that I wish it did not exist.” Fun. Indeed, there are challenges in the book, but there are challenges in any book. 

Like most pastors, my preparation involves an inordinate amount of time in the biblical text itself, in prayer, and also in commentaries – books written to share the opinions of men about the Truth of God. Good commentaries (translate: commentaries with which the pastor is inclined to agree) are not always easy to find. I rely on Amazon descriptions and reviews to discern a taste of what I might purchase.

I unearthed a review last night, given for a commentary on Esther, that hurt my heart. Here is the text of the review:

Full disclosure: I have not read the entire book. So this may be a little off base. But from what I have read, this is a great academic commentary if you are concerned with different textual opinions on the passages being discussed. If yo [sic] are looking for something to preach from, personal edification, or bible study material this may not be for you.

And so my rant begins with a question:

When did academic commentary cease to be useful for preaching, personal edification, and bible study?

The Bible was not written in English. I know, it’s shocking. I’ll give you a moment to catch up with that statement.

If this is true (and it is), then it stands to reason that something is lost in translation. And while I fully and whole-heartedly believe that God has preserved his word through faithful translators, I also hold that believers of every background can profit from knowing more than the most watered-down contemporary translation is able to share. This means that, at times, I believe it is useful – if not absolutely necessary – to engage the text of Scripture from a more challenging point of view. Most of the time, for English-speakers, English is the way to go. It is the easiest, it is the language we understand and remember.

The presence of a Hebrew word or a Greek word on the page is intimidating. It’s like my last name. There’s a in there. People see nine letters and the and they panic. The struggle is real. So I know what foreign languages do to me. But I’ve found, over the years, that if I press into the foreign, I learn something. I still remember the first time I tried. The text was “academic” in nature, but I was determined to grow. I kept a Greek alphabet in the volume and I took a moment to try to pronounce the foreign words. I took notes in the margins. By the end of the 700pg(!!) book, I was recognizing biblical words! Real, original, biblical words! My knowledge was shallow, but I found blessing in overcoming the fear.

Called to Preach? 

To say that “academic” materials are not useful to preachers is insulting to the pastoral calling. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor didn’t feel it was useful to even attempt to grasp biblical texts from an academic perspective? I do NOT condone pastors sharing everything they’ve learned. Sermons are not supposed to be just a formal reading of the Greek lexicon. But if there is no study behind the sermon, what is there instead? Pastors approach the pulpit to expound the word, to point to Christ, to equip and encourage. Maybe I’m naive, but I think there’s at least a little bit of thinking involved.

In the midst of preparation, I have a couple “academic” commentaries in hand. I also have a number of “smooth like butter” commentaries, which are usually compilations of sermons the author has already preached. To simply grab the butter and regurgitate… well… there’s a word for that. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor is only paraphrasing the fruit of another servant’s labors? It happens. I believe there is much to be gained from the butter. But I also believe the butter is one resource among many. Maybe there’s something newly churned waiting to emerge.

I want to be challenged by a text before I preach. As I am faithful to dig and explore, to pray and to apply, the challenge will come. Sometimes the full gravity of what I am saying doesn’t hit me UNTIL I’m preaching, but I rejoice even when this is the case. If the Holy Spirit has not poured the text over my weak and weary soul, my message loses a measure of authenticity.

The regurgitated sermon is not the fruit of the pastor’s time spent with God in the Scripture and prayer. It is the fruit of someone else’s time spent with God. Maybe I’m wrong, but apart from the extremely rare and fully disclosed case, I believe in sermons crafted from a word wrought on the heart of the Lord’s servant for that hour.

The Church, She Ain’t Dumb

I believe this Amazon review speaks a harsh word over the church as well. If the “academic” commentaries have no value in preaching, and no value in personal edification, and (most absurdly) no value in bible study, why do they exist? If pastors and Christians can’t profit, who can? I would like to offer a word to the church. You are NOT dumb. You do NOT need the Word of God watered down to some paltry level of intelligence. You do NOT need to be entertained more than you need to be fed. I believe in you. I’m one of you.

You CAN read the “academic” materials. You CAN grow by stretching your intellectual efforts. You CAN find transformation in the renewing of your mind. It’s true. The Bible says so.

When I preach, I push myself so that I can push the congregation – no matter the age or background of the group. I challenge the church because I believe in her. More importantly, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and convince as the full counsel of the Word is proclaimed. I believe our greatest growth is found in struggle. Consider the exercise of any muscle in your body. If you grab the bar but never lift, will you ever get stronger?

There is only blessing, never a curse, in striving to understand today what you did not understand  yesterday. Chase it.

The Bible and Beyond

We enjoyed dinner last night with a group of friends from church. Some of us have been reading a book together over the summer. One friend’s comment spoke well into this situation. She shared that she was worried at the outset that she would struggle to grasp the book. But as she read, she found it quite manageable. I would gladly have offered encouragement and assurance from the outset that she, and everyone else, would be fine.

I firmly believe our feeble brains will elevate to the challenge if we are persistent to engage. In other words, keep trying. Keep reading. There is no shame in reading slowly. There is no shame in reading with a dictionary on the table. In fact, the best books are likely to force you into the dictionary. Sometimes a single “dictionary word” can speak a thought unspeakable by a dozen emoticons. We never graduate from learning, so let’s go ahead and agree that needing to look up a word is a blessing and an opportunity. This is true of every book, including the Bible. Especially the Bible.

I plead with you today: Pastors, Church, readers. Believe in yourself enough to challenge and be challenged.