Are you a pilgrim or a tourist? (Hebrews 11:8-16) #sermon #podcast

camino de santiago 1 cropGrowing up in the church, I would often hear the phrase, “We’re just pilgrims passing through,” usually in response to someone’s passion for changing the world. It means that since this is not our “true home” (heaven is), we shouldn’t worry about what happens to our world other than keeping our family safe. Hebrews 11 talks about the Israelite patriarchs who “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” (v. 13), not because they considered earthly life irrelevant compared to “heaven,” but because they “desired a better country” (v. 16). Those who see our lives on Earth as a brief visit are tourists; those who are seeking a kingdom of God that requires more than one lifetime to build are pilgrims. Which are you? Continue reading

The context of “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1-3)

I came across the Biblical context of the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection in yesterday’s Daily Office reading. It’s Hebrews 6:1-2: “Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings about Christ and not laying again the foundation: repentance from works of death and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”

Continue reading

God’s grace in 4 stick figure drawings

We had the first session of our new member class today. During the first class, we do introductions and give a primer on Methodist theology. We had the fortunate problem of having too many people in the class so our introductions took up all but 15 minutes. I didn’t want us to leave having only done introductions, so I tried to explain in 15 minutes and 4 stick figure drawings the three kinds of grace we talk about in Methodism: prevenient, sanctifying, and justification, along with the Christian perfection that God’s grace draws us toward. The way I’ve illustrated it is a bit individualistic (which of course I would have criticized if someone else had done it ;-)). I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions for improvement. Continue reading

What I taught the confirmands: the sea of wrath and island of mercy

For the past two years at our church’s confirmation retreat, I’ve shared a message based on Ephesians 4:14-16 that summarizes the way that I understand Christ to save us from sin by incorporating us into His body. I have often described my dissatisfaction with the popular evangelical account of salvation in which sin is understood solely as an offense against God’s honor which is “paid back” by Jesus’ blood on the cross. The problem with this predominant account is that it allows little recognition of the cross’s role in addressing the spiritual imprisonment sin creates as a powerful social force. In any case, the way I explained to our church’s confirmands the problem that Jesus’ cross resolves was by using the metaphor of a sea of wrath that we can only escape through an island of mercy created by Christ. Continue reading

What I wish Miroslav Volf had answered in A Public Faith

I had been waiting all summer for the release date of Miroslav Volf’s latest book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Amidst the political debate in our country about the debt ceiling, whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended, whether or not the EPA should even be allowed to exist, etc, I wanted to hear how a prominent Christian theologian understood our responsibility as Christians to the common good. To me, that phrase “common good” has a very specific meaning. It has to do with the material well-being of our neighbors and the world around us considered independently of our efforts to draw people into the body of Christ. Continue reading

Learning to Love God’s Judgment

[This is a repost of an article I wrote for Ministry Matters on the two sides of God’s judgment and the way that Christ’s atonement converts us into loving God’s judgment.]

Many have misinterpreted this year’s battle between Rob Bell and the neo-Reformed bloggers who have dogged him for the claims that Bell makes in his book Love Wins. It’s actually not a debate about whether or not hell exists; there’s a deeper question whose answer shapes how we understand the nature of hell and what we are saved from by the cross: Why does God judge us? Continue reading

Turning from Vanity: Monster-Psalm Meditation #5

Psalm 119:33-40
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it. Continue reading

Jesus: Cornerstone or Stumbling Block?

Sermon for 5/21/2011
Text: 1 Peter 2:1-10

At our Change the World event last weekend, we had a real deal Christian rock band here to close things out. But the problem with hosting a hard rock band in your acoustically challenged sanctuary is that rock musicians’ amps have only one setting – LOUD! We had about 100 people in the sanctuary at the end of our event, but a lot of them weren’t exactly hard rockers (some folks my mom’s age as well as parents of very small children). So the band’s first song blew all but maybe 15 people out of the sanctuary. It was really sweet how the pews were throbbing with the bass and that something taboo was happening in church. But I felt really bad for the band because I’ve had a similar experience before. I once forced a coffeehouse in Dothan, Alabama to close down early because I drove their customers away.

For what it’s worth, the band was really good; I bought their CD and I’ve been jamming to it in my car. I think our experience this Saturday is a helpful metaphor for the way that sometimes we drive people out of the room through how we share the gospel. When I was a freshman at the University of Virginia, I went around campus handing out pamphlets I had made to try to convert people to Christianity. I imagine that if I handed you what I wrote back then, this room would get empty pretty quickly. I thought the most important thing about the gospel was that I was right and other people were wrong. 1 Peter 2 says that Jesus is like a rock that some people trip over and other people make the cornerstone for their lives. In my brief sidewalk evangelist career, my pamphlets were like Jesus rocks that I kicked at other people to make them stumble so they could convert to my way of thinking. I didn’t realize that I was the one who was tripping over Jesus.

One of the ironies of the Christian journey is that the newer we are in our walk, the more we think we know everything. Or at least that’s how I was at 19 years old. Now the swagger that some of us have as young Christians actually has a good source that just needs to be redirected. When we accept Jesus into our hearts and experience the Holy Spirit in our lives, it should be exciting to realize that we’re part of a new reality in which God can do anything. It’s appropriate to be fired up and want to tell the rest of the world about how God has transformed our lives and how He wants to transform the lives of everyone we meet. Still there’s one thing we need to remember not just when we’re new at this game but even those of us who have been on the road with Jesus for many years and that is that we’re all just babies who need God’s milk to grow into our salvation.

Notice that Peter says we “grow into” salvation. Most of us don’t think of salvation as a process; we think it’s something that happens in a flash. We say some prayer in which we officially tell God sorry for our sins and ask Jesus into our hearts, or maybe we say “I do, I do, I do, I will,” in response to a series of questions like the confirmands will be doing tomorrow morning. And then a switch gets flipped, our name gets written in the book of life, and we’re on the winning team so that we can talk smack to all the losers who will get left behind when God zaps us up into heaven. How many of y’all have heard of this thing called rapture? It’s the belief of some Christians that God will beam us out when the world’s about to end. According to Christian radio host Harold Camping, the rapture was supposed to happen tonight at 6 pm based on his calculation of numbers from the Bible. I didn’t want to say anything to jinx it but according to the clock, it looks like we have been officially “left behind.” I’ve been having debates on facebook about whether it’s Eastern or Central Time, so there might still be hope.

All jokes aside, the bottom line from Peter’s perspective is that salvation is a journey. What do we need to be saved from? Peter gives us a clue in the opening of his chapter when he tells his readers to rid themselves of malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander. These sinful qualities undermine our ability to receive God’s love, much less share it with other people. We drive other people out of the room when the gospel that we share is corrupted by the pettiness of our egotism. Even after we climb aboard the gospel train, God’s still got plenty of saving to do in our lives, because our hearts still need a lifetime’s worth of cleaning. When we give our lives to Jesus, that’s only the start of the journey. It means giving the Holy Spirit the keys to our heart so he can get in there to vacuum, scrub, and most importantly declutter all of our idols, those shallow things we try to worship when we fail to see that God is the source of all the world’s beauty.

This is what it means to “let ourselves be built into a spiritual house” in which Jesus is the cornerstone. We have to recognize that the house of our soul will always be a work in progress and we have to be open enough about our imperfections to allow God to continue to remodel us. Notice that Peter doesn’t tell us to build our own spiritual houses; it’s when we try to build them ourselves that we get in trouble. When I see the gospel as an affirmation of how right I am and how wrong other people are, I might not realize that I’m locking the Holy Spirit out of my heart but that’s what I’m doing. Becoming a Christian is not about swelling up with pride because I’m cheering for the right team. It’s about discovering the freedom that our savior gives us to admit that we’re wrong and let ourselves be transformed by God. As long as we’re cocky enough to kick Jesus around in front of us like a soccer ball, He’s going to be our stumbling block. Letting ourselves be built on top of Jesus as our cornerstone requires a completely different attitude, a radical humility which we can only receive from God as a gift.

When Peter tells us that we’re a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” these are beautiful words of affirmation. They were written to churches in the land of modern-day Turkey filled with people from the bottom of society who were under severe persecution by the Roman Empire. But these are not only words of affirmation. Peter isn’t giving his readers a compliment on what great people we are; he’s telling us what God has called us to be in order to get us to start living out our call. Peter isn’t talking about our accomplishments; he’s talking about our responsibilities. God has the power to transform us into a royal priesthood who can share His love with the world. He can do this and He will do this, but we’ve got to let Jesus be the cornerstone upon which our spiritual house gets built.

Peter says that the way we go from being “no people” to “God’s people” is by being the people who “have received mercy.” Accepting God’s mercy through Jesus Christ is the key to everything. Christians have all kinds of opinions about how this happens, how to make it “official,” when God knows or decides who gets in and who won’t. And so we kick Jesus around, like a big stone ball, taking pleasure when other peoples’ toes get smashed, thinking that we win the game when everybody else is too tired or too bruised to keep kicking. I’m not sure that I’ve fully accepted God’s mercy yet because I get far too much satisfaction from winning arguments about God with other people. Accepting God’s mercy means I stop kicking the Jesus rock around for the sake of my own glory and let God build me into a house for the sake of His glory. We do not build our spiritual houses on the rightness of what we believe about Jesus; our houses are built by God on the mercy that gets His foot in the door of our hearts. Don’t make Jesus the rock that you kick at other people; let Him be the cornerstone on which God builds you into His beautiful temple. That way, when others see the love of God in you, they will want the same cornerstone for their hearts.