Bread of Life Radical Nourishment

Jesus is the bread of life.

Even though it doesn’t sound like it — this is a radical statement.

How can something seemly so mundane as bread be radical?

Let’s explore this together!

bread of life

cheeseslave [photo credit]

Bread of Life in John 6

As we’ve already seen, John 6 is an exciting and challenging passage!  Jesus revealed himself as a provider, as divine, and as a chaos calmer.  How awesome!

So how can we move from such grandiose topics to bread, a banal notion if there ever was one!?

Well, this is the jump that Jesus himself makes in John 6.

Jesus provides for 5000+ in a miraculous fashion.  Then Jesus retreats, only to return to his disciples as they are in trouble on the Sea of Galilee.  And Jesus reveals his divinity on that body of water by walking on the water and saying that he is the “I am.”

And when Jesus and his team finally make it back to their ministry “headquarters,” the city of Capernaum, they are discovered by the great crowd which Jesus had fed the day before.

Instead of reacting like so many of us might have, Jesus interacted with these folks.  And he does it in a truly rabbinical way, answering and asking questions.

And in the turning moment of the dialogue with the crowd Jesus says these words in John 6.35:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

What’s so radical about this statement?

Well, for Jesus’ original audience it was revolutionary.  God had used Moses to provide bread (manna) for the Israelites in the desert as they escaped slavery in Egypt.  And that image was sacrosanct!  Infringing on it or claiming it as one’s own more or less amounted to blasphemy.

But that’s exactly what Jesus did.  He claimed to be the bread of life, not Moses.

But the radical-ness goes deeper.  For John’s original readers this statement was radical too.  It was Rome who provided them bread (literally and figuratively as general provision and protection).  More specifically, it was the Emperor who was their provider and to say something otherwise was counter-cultural and even politically dangerous.

But that’s exactly what Jesus did.  He claimed to be the bread of life, not the Emperor.

And all throughout time since Jesus spoke these words, they have remained radical.

Competitors for the Title of Bread of Life Today

Let’s think about this in our day and time.  Who provides our bread?  (I’ll speak from my context, namely the American Church.)  Two ideas instantly pop into my head:

  1. America claims to be our bread of life.  Think about it.  How many times have you heard people say, in one way or another, that out nation is our ultimate provider?  Here are a few ways I’ve heard it: We’re protected by our military, we are educated thanks to our government, many of us receive benefits from our state and federal governments (whether food stamps, health care, retirement benefits, etc.), and we’re given a system (capitalism) in which people can “make it.”  And don’t even get me started on the so-called “American Dream”!!  If any of us make claims otherwise we’re labeled as ungrateful, unpatriotic, and ultimately un-American.  But that’s exactly what Jesus did.  He claimed to be the bread of life, not America.
  2. We claim to be our own bread of life.  On a more personal and intimate level, we hold tight to the idea that we provide for ourselves and our families.  Many of us have fought and clawed our ways to where we are through all kinds of difficulties, like systemic inequalities, racism, poverty, and just life and all of its complications.  So we feel entitled to the idea that we’ve got this.  We can take care of ourselves.  And anyone who claims otherwise is telling us that our efforts weren’t enough.  They are undermining what we’ve accomplished.  And they are hamstringing our attempts to be self-reliant!  But that’s exactly what Jesus did.  He claimed to be the bread of life, not us.

Letting Jesus Be Our Bread of Life

So if Jesus’ radical statement that he is the bread of life is true (and it is!), then how can we allow him to be just that in our lives?  Here are a few ideas to get us started:

  • Stop allowing other things/people/entities to be our breads of life.  As we talked about above, America is not our bread of life and neither are we.  In fact, our families aren’t either.  Neither are our friends, our jobs, our investments, our passions, our pleasures, our pursuits, or our dreams.  Nothing but Jesus can serve as our bread of life.
  • Turn to Jesus first.  So that means that when we are seeking meaning and provision, the first place we should turn is to Jesus.  To be sure, this doesn’t mean that other things and people can help provide for us.  Of course they can!  But our first source of provision must be Jesus.
  • Allow others to help us. Like so many other things in life, seeking to allow Jesus to be our bread of life is hard.  In fact, it’s so hard that given enough time, all of us will fail at this miserably if we go at it alone.  So, instead, let’s do it together!  We need to find a few other Christians and ask them to hold us accountable as we seek to allow Jesus to be our bread of life!
  • Pray, pray, and pray some more.  But even community and accountability aren’t enough.  We need an infusion of divine aid!  We need the Holy Spirit to guide us as individuals and communities as we seek to make Jesus our bread of life.  So we must pray…maybe something like this: Father, help me/us turn to Jesus when I/we are in need.  By your indwelling Spirit, help me/us to quit putting my/our faith first in other things.  Amen.
  • Rest on God’s grace.  Even when we have accountability and even when we pray, we’ll still fail.  We are humans after all!  And when we mess up, when we allow other things and people to be our bread of life, let’s not beat ourselves up.  Instead, let’s remember that we’re recipients of the greatest gift of all, the grace of God as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  And in that grace there’s unconditional love and unending do-overs.

So that’s it!  Jesus is our bread of life!

Now the hard part — let’s live like it!

 

What do you think?  What does it mean to you that Jesus is our bread of life?  What are we tempted to put in his place?  How can we more and more turn to Jesus first?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

A Proper Approach How to enter into gospel-centered relationships

How we approach people as we seek to be missional is important.

This simple truth reminds me of all the movies I’ve seen over the years in which a pilot is about to land their plane and they get ready to make their approach.

They have a checklist to go through, a way to be prepared.

And they know that if they do all that’s on that checklist, then they will be much, much more likely to land the plane safely than if they went about it all willy-nilly.

Why do we think being and sharing the good news of Jesus would be any different?  Our approach matters too!

Sure, we might not have a checklist that we must work through each time…but there are some tried and true ideas to help our approach be much, much more likely to succeed!

Why Talk about Our Approach at All?

This notion of writing about this topic became self-evident last week.  I wrote a blogpost called “5 Reasons Not To Be Judgmental” that got shared around on Facebook a little bit.

The response was what I expected.  Several people were in agreement with me that being judgmental is a bad thing and that, among other things, it hurts the way we present ourselves to those who have yet to follow Jesus.  And many, many more people were angered by the post, claiming that I had gone too soft or too liberal or had become too tolerant.

Despite the fact that I should have known better, I waded into the comments to duke it out with the latter group.  In one particularly tense comment thread I found an unexpected ally, Sam.  I don’t know much about Sam other than he seems to be somewhere on a path toward Jesus.  I don’t know where he might be on that journey, but I’m pretty confident that he’s on it!

Sam decided to make his voice heard in a conversation where one commenter was saying that any preaching of the gospel should include an strong effort to convince the hearers that they are “wretched sinners.”  And while an awareness of sinfulness and repentance is certainly part of responding to the good news of Jesus, it seems to me from a lifetime or reading and studying the New Testament that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin and lead them to repentance.

This is where Sam stepped in.  Here’s what he said:

approach

I was impressed by what Sam shared!  So I asked him if I could use his comments.

approach

And Sam replied:

approach

And he concluded with this zinger:

approach

I was left more or less speechless by what Sam had shared!  And from that day until now all I could think about was sharing Sam’s words on this blog.

So, there they are — the wisdom of Sam, highlighting the importance of having a proper approach when being missional!

Boiling Down Sam’s Ideas about Approach

So, how can we get the most out of Sam’s words?  Well, I think it might be good to look through them and find the best nuggets.  Here are the results of my mining efforts:

  1. We must have an audience that’s willing to listen!  If our approach is too aggressive, too judgmental, too churchy, or too negative overall, then no one will listen.  So if we are hoping to share and be the good news where we work, live, and play, then we MUST find ways for folks to listen to us!
  2. When we share we should be “positive and accepting.”  This is going to feel like watering down the gospel to some folks.  But stick with me for a minute.  The word “gospel” literally  means “good news.”  It follows logically then that we would want to have “good” things to talk about when we share the “good news”!  And simply because we’re in proximity to or having a conversation with someone whon our church culture deems as a “wretched sinner” doesn’t mean that we agree with or condone whatever sinfulness that is present.  Instead it means that we are trying our best to be like Jesus, who was infamous for being friends with “sinners and tax collectors” (Matthew 9.10-11, 11.19; Mark 2.15-16; Luke 5.30, 7.34, 15.1).
  3. Actions speak louder than words. Sam implores us to let our loving and selfless actions do the talking as we make our approach instead of talking about how others are evil for their actions.  What kind of actions should we engage in?  I love how Sam starts at a really simple level — just asking if everything is okay or if we can help in anyway.  I’m pretty sure that all of us can take those two steps!  And in so doing we will be more likely to move the relationship closer to Christ.
  4. Our actions in the community are noticed.  Sam said, “It’s really hard to shut out any group who displays positive work in their community, who supports groups of people who are otherwise ridiculed and discriminated against, even if they don’t agree with them.”  There it is, in plain English.  How we treat people in our neighborhoods is a known commodity.  People see us.  They see us as individuals, families, small groups, congregations, and as the Church as a whole.  So, wouldn’t we want what they see to be attractive instead of repulsive?
  5. Following Sam’s approach can lead to people feeling impressed, inspired, curious, and respectful.  Aren’t these reactions much better than the way that people tend to think of us today, namely as judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, and too political?  And in so doing, wouldn’t the person we are sharing with be more likely to respond positively to the good news of Jesus and his kingdom?

Our Approach Should Be Like Jesus’ Approach

But those of us who are Christians follow Jesus and not Sam!  So how did Jesus do this?

Much could be written about Jesus’ approach but I only want to explore one little story here: the calling of Matthew.

A little background would be good.  At this point in Jesus’ ministry he has gained a reputation for being a good teacher, a worker of miracles, and a friend of the unlovable.  One group that was certainly unlovable by the vast majority of Jews living in Palestine in the first century was tax collectors.

Now when we think of tax collectors today we might think of IRS agents with their carefully pressed suits, calculators, spread sheets, and complicated tax codes.  But Matthew was a different sort of tax collector.  He was more akin to the member of a gang who shakes down local businesses for protection money.  In other words, Matthew had more in common with mob muscle than pencil pushers.

And Matthew did his work publicly.  Everyone knew who he was and what he did.

So when Jesus started his approach with Matthew, all of these things were true and everyone, Jesus and Matthew included, was aware of them.

Here’s how it went down:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9.9)

Notice what Jesus didn’t do.  He didn’t judge Matthew.  He didn’t tell him to shape up before he would be able to follow him.  He didn’t care much about the opinion of anyone other than Matthew.  And he didn’t try to convince Matthew that he was a wretched sinner.

Instead Jesus just said “follow me.”  Jesus asked Matthew to join his community, to become one of his traveling band.

How crazy!

Jesus’ actions certainly don’t line up with our typical approach.  We tend to tell people that they have to behave and believe correctly before they can belong to us.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  He told people that they belonged and then taught them through his own life how to behave and believe!

 

Friends, let’s follow the advice of Jesus (and Sam) and let’s fix our approach to sharing the good news!

 

What do you think?  How can we fix how we approach sharing the good news with someone who has yet to follow Jesus?  Let me know in the comments below!

#DivisionOfLabor: New Wine Podcast #021

How should the division of the labor in the church between leaders and congregants be lived out? Who should be doing the work?

I answer this question in my latest podcast.  You can listen to it on the bottom of this post, on iTunes, or on Stitcher.

If you like it, would you please rate it and even leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher?  That would be super cool!

Also, if you’d like to help support the creative process that helps bring this podcast to life, then please check out my Patreon page (http://patreon.com/JMatthewBarnes).  There are some fun rewards there for folks who pledge support although any level support will be greatly appreciated!

Thanks!

Chaos + Jesus = ?? Jesus walking on water gives us a clue...

Chaos.

Many of us today claim that we live in the midst of it.  Some of us say that we thrive on it and others of us are petrified by it.

But in reality we’re all scared by chaos.  Why?  Because a chaotic situation can’t be defined easily and certainly can’t be predicted.

So in the face of chaos we might not be able to make informed decisions.  We might fall flat on our proverbial faces.

And no one wants that.

Others of us still face real chaos in our lives.  Our living situations are complicated, messy, and even dangerous.  Our ability to provide for ourselves and our loved ones is equally unpredictable.

So, for those of us who follow Jesus, how can we respond to chaos?  Better yet, how does Jesus respond to our chaos?

John 6 and Chaos

I think we begin to get an answer to how to deal with chaos (or how Jesus deals with it) in John 6.16-21.  Here it is:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

In order to understand the full force of this passage we need to know something about ancient views on large bodies of water.  Unlike most boat-going occasions today, in the ancient world one’s life was put in literal danger by entering a boat and setting off.  Why?  Because many, many people died in the ocean, in rivers, and on lakes.

Boats were not nearly what they are today and safety measures (like life preservers) were not invented and commonly used yet.  Thus, the weather turning bad and the waves getting big were truly life threatening!

Thus, for many ancient people large bodies of water represented chaos and they feared them greatly.  We can see this in the descriptions of heaven in the book of Revelation.  In the heavenly visions the sea is described as “crystal,” meaning that it was calm.  In other words, in heaven God causes all the chaos to subside.

With all of this in mind, this story from John 6 feels a bit more dire than at first glance.  The disciples are alone and they are on the Sea of Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee).  Already we know that they may be feeling the pressures of the moment (though maybe not for the fishermen among them).

But the weather turns bad, turning up the chaos meter to 10!  I can only imagine what they all must be thinking — Jesus left us after feeding all those people and now we’re going to die out here on this God-forsaken lake!

But they didn’t die that day.  The chaos didn’t win.

Jesus came to their aid by walking on the water!  Before they could respond to this crazy feat, Jesus identifies himself by saying “It is I” or, as translated as in Exodus 3.14, “I am.”  I’ve written about Jesus’ words here before, but it almost goes without saying that Jesus is making a bold claim about his deity here, both with his words (“I am”) and his actions (walking on water).

But I don’t want to hurry past what it meant for Jesus to walk on water.  By doing so Jesus was indicating that chaos had no control over him.  He could literally put it under his feet and walk all over it!  This must have spoken volumes to his disciples!

Then he continues his demonstration of mastery of chaos by speeding along their efforts to cross the lake.  John makes it sound like Jesus has performed another miracle by saying the “immediately the boat reached the shore,” as if walking on the water wasn’t miracle enough!

In other words, the disciples where facing extreme chaos in this life-threatening boating adventure but when Jesus showed up, everything was taken care of in short order.

Does Jesus Help Us with Our Chaos Today?

That’s all well and good that Jesus walked on water and helped out his disciples.  But can he do similar sorts of things for us when we face chaos today?

The short answer is this — Yes!  The longer answer is — Yes but in his way and with our participation.

Here are a few principles from this passage to consider:

  1. The chaos the disciples faced came as they were on mission with Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong…Jesus can and does help us when we’ve caused our own problems.  But there is a pretty consistent picture painted in the Gospels of Jesus extending help to his disciples when they were obeying him.  In this case the disciples had been on a preaching and healing tour with Jesus and were returning to their base of operations in Capernaum.  This chaos was not of their own making; it happened upon them as they were seeking to follow Jesus.  Where does our chaos originate from?  Does it come because we’ve carved our own paths or because we’re on mission with Jesus too?
  2. The chaos the disciples faced didn’t cause them to freeze up or panic.  Seeing that many of the pictures we have of the disciples in the Gospels are of them bumbling their way through life, this story is a bit different.  There’s a scary storm that is causing large waves.  And the disciples could have just stopped rowing and started whining and complaining.  But they didn’t do that.  They continued rowing.  Friends, chaos will come into our lives.  And many of us are tempted to sit on our hands when this happens, fearful to do anything.  But we have standing orders.  We are to love God, love others, and make disciples no matter what — chaos or otherwise.  Will we be willing to continue to do what we know we ought to, even when chaos seems to be reigning supreme in our lives?
  3. The chaos gave the disciples a unique opportunity to welcome Jesus.  There’s a small line that’s easy to miss in the story of Jesus walking on water.  Here it is: “…they were willing to take him into the boat…”  After Jesus identified himself (both as Jesus and as divine), the disciples made the smart choice of letting him board their boat!  And once he did, he helped them through their chaotic situation.  Will we accept Jesus as he comes walking on our chaos?  Or will we be too upset, distracted, and disheartened even to see him, much less welcome him?

To be clear, following Jesus is not a “get out of trouble free” card.  No.  Instead it’s a “walk with Jesus through the chaos” kind of thing!

Are we willing to turn to Jesus in the midst of our chaos?

 

What do you think?  How does Jesus help us in our chaotic moments?  Let me know in the comments below!

I Am – Jesus’ Bold Claim Jesus identifies who he really is

When Jesus said the words “I am” in John 6.20, nostalgia must have been triggered for his disciples.

And nostalgia is a strong force.  It can cause us to relive memories of times gone by.  However, the danger of nostalgia is that it can cause us to miss what is right in front of us.

On the flipside, it may well be that one of the great powers of nostalgia is to cause us to live more presently and to long more fervently for God’s promised future.

Here’s how Russell Moore, the president of the Baptist group called the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, puts it: “Our warm memories, of times we have known or of times we wish we’d known, point us to a deep longing within us for a world made right” [SOURCE].

Getting back to John 6 for a second, I’m convinced that Jesus saying “I am” served as a nostalgic moment for the disciples.  They could either bristle at Jesus for pulling a much-loved phrase from a bygone era into the present.  They could dwell wholeheartedly on the past meaning of what Jesus said.  Or they could allow this moment to propel them into being active participants in bringing about God’s will in the world, his will to make everything right.

Jesus Says “I Am”

To understand what Jesus was saying in this passage, we need to unpack a few things.

First, these words are embedded in the “walking on water” incident in John 6, which we will talk more about soon.  But suffice it to say here that Jesus said “I am” while he was literally walking on water.

Second, Jesus said these words between two significant episodes in his life, the feeding of the 5000+ (John 6.1-14) and his teaching on the “bread of life” which caused many of his followers to desert him (John 6.25-71).  In other words, these words are surrounded by bread and knowing this might inform how we understand Jesus’ words.

Third, in Greek Jesus said ego eimi, which is the exact same way that the Hebrew that God spoke to Moses in Exodus 3.14 is translated in the ancient translation called the Septuagint, which we very popular in Jesus’ day.

And fourth, he paired the words “I am” with “don’t be afraid.”  The latter set of words is most commonly associated with angels in the Bible.  Whenever they appear in a situation in the Bible, they almost always say “don’t be afraid.”

So what might all of this have meant for the disciples in the boat?  I think that the words “I am” would have served as a hyperlink to the story of God telling Moses his name in Exodus 3.14.  Furthermore, when paired with “don’t be afraid,” they would have understood that Jesus must be more than a mere man since those words are almost always reserved for extra-human beings in the Bible.  Furthermore, Jesus was actively demonstrating that he was more than just a man since he was walking on water as he spoke!

And how might the original audience have made sense of all of this?  If they were Jewish, and some surely were, then they too would have been made to feel nostalgic about Moses and God in Exodus 3.14 and they would have also understood the words “do not be afraid” in the same way.  They too would have caught onto the miraculous nature of Jesus walking on the water.

In addition, the original audience would be able to interpret this story in light of the one coming before it and the one after it, both of which are, at least in part, about bread.  And it seems to me that bread in both cases points to God’s provision, hearkening back to the provision of manna (divine bread) during the wilderness wanderings of the ancient Israelites after they were set free from Egypt.

In other words, the fact that this “I am” saying is sandwiched between two stories about bread (both of which point to divine provision) shows that John (the author of this Gospel) was also trying to communicate that Jesus was extra-human through this literary technique.

So, to recap, by saying the words “I am” in this context (both in the original scene and in the Gospel of John), it seems clear that Jesus is identifying himself with God.  This story points with a great deal of clarity at Jesus being divine!

Jesus Said “I Am” — Now What?

What does it matter that Jesus claimed to be divine?  Who cares?  What kind of impact might it have on us?

First, I find the reaction of the disciples in the boat interesting.  After seeing Jesus walk on water and hearing him claim a divine title as his own, “then they were willing to take him into the boat…” (John 6.21a).

Jesus didn’t say “I am” to rub his divinity in anyone’s face.  And he didn’t say it just for the sake of revealing himself.

He said it so that the disciple would further welcome him in.  He said it to build intimacy with them.

He said it so that he could have a greater impact in the present so that he could train his disciples up for their future work.

Friends, Jesus still makes the same claim — he’s still the great “I am”!  And we have the same set of choices to make as the disciples did.

We can deny that Jesus was telling the truth when he identified with God by saying “I am,” bristling at the very notion.

We can love that Jesus claimed to be divine, but only let thinking about it make us feel fondly about this story in the Bible and the times we thought about it in the past.

Or we can invite Jesus in our “boats” like the disciples did, giving Jesus the proximity needed to change us into the people we need to be to fulfill his mission for us in this world.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t reveal himself in the Bible to be divine just for the heck of it.  No!  Instead he desires for us to be changed by who he is so that we can best serve him in his mission to make all things right.

 

What do you think?  What did Jesus mean when he said “I am”?  And how should it impact us today?  Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

Easter Everyday The reality of Easter extends beyond the holiday

The reality of Easter goes well beyond the day of the holiday.

The power of the resurrection of Jesus to change things is not limited to the Sunday following the full moon which falls on or after the spring equinox (March 21st).

Easter can be meaningful everyday.

And for a follower of Jesus, Easter must be relied upon at all times!

What Is Easter?

Easter is a day on which people all around the world celebrate something miraculous — the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

The Gospels, in the Bible’s New Testament, reveal to us that Jesus was falsely accused of being a threat to Rome and was sentenced to death.  The method of execution was to be being hanged on a cross.

And this is what happened to Jesus — he was hanged on a cross on a Friday before Passover and he died while hanging there.  His dead body was removed from the cross and placed in a tomb that belonged to someone else.

On the third day (Friday being the first day, Saturday the second, and Sunday the third), Jesus was resurrected from the dead by power of God!  Despite there being a large stone rolled in front of the tomb and a security detail being in place, Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found!

The first people to bear witness to this amazing fact were women: Mary Magdalene (who, by the way, was NOT a prostitute!), Mary the mother of James, and Salome.

In short order the resurrected Jesus revealed himself more personally to Mary Magdalene, who was then told to tell the other disciples that he was risen.

Over the next few days Jesus appeared to many of his followers, whom Paul numbers at over 500 (1 Corinthians 15.6-8).

In other words, Easter is all about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

Why Does Easter Matter?

So what?  What does it matter that some guy who lived thousands of years ago died and was risen from the dead on the third day?

  • Easter demonstrates the power of God.  Never before and never since has a person been resurrected.  Sure, people have been resuscitated.  In fact, thanks to modern medical practices, this is a somewhat common occurrence.  But people who have been resuscitated will die again.  Resurrection is different.  A person who has been resurrected will never die again.  They will live forever.  For this feat to be accomplished, God had to act in a way that was unprecedented.  And he did.  And in so doing he showed his great power to the world!
  • Easter is a preview of things to come.  The writers of the New Testament, especially Paul, had in mind a concept that is almost totally foreign to us today — the general resurrection of the dead (see especially 1 Corinthians 15.12-57).  The general picture looks something like this: when Jesus returns, after some important events happen, all the dead will be resurrected bodily.  That means that they will come back to life but in a resurrectted body, which is imperishable (1 Corinthians 15.42).  Frankly, this image of how things will unfold is not at all like what most of us are accustomed to.  It appears to me that many of us believe in a folk theology that seems to say that when we die we become disembodied angelic beings floating about on clouds while playing heavenly music.  This isn’t a biblical idea!  Instead, Easter is a preview of things to come, namely that we all will be raised bodily at the end!  And, friends, this is good news!  Because the body that we will be given can’t suffer pain and won’t age or decay!
  • Easter assures us that things can change.  Any of us who have lived for a while know how hard it is to change things in our lives.  Behaviors, patterns of thinking, spending habits, how much we eat and exercise, etc., etc. all feel impossible to change.  But is there anything more unchangeable than the permanence of death?  And the permanence of death is exactly what God changed through the resurrection of Jesus!  Therefore, by extension, what is there that the power of God can’t change?  Nothing!  God can turn the most intractable situation around.  He can help the most stubborn person become better.  And God can change our futures as well!  Easter proves that there is nothing which is impossible with God!
  • Easter can help us be set free from fear.  Death is the thing that many of us fear the most, well that or speaking in public!  But in all reality, death is scary.  What happens when we die?  How will it feel?  Will there be pain involved?  How will our loved ones respond?  Will they be taken care of?  Will we have a thousand regrets and million things left undone when we die?  The resurrection of Jesus can help assuage some of these fears.  Death isn’t something to fear anymore, it’s simply a transition to being with God forever.  And not just being with him, but having imperishable bodies that are like Jesus’ resurrected body (Philippians 3.21).  Easter can help us be prepared for death and to face it with confidence!

How Do We Rely on Easter Everyday?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Think about it.  If we never, ever think about the fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead (except for on the day of Easter), how can it have an impact on our lives?  So during our times of meditation or our quiet times, let’s reflect on Easter.  Let’s remember that by the power of God Jesus defeated death.  And let’s remember that God has given us that same power through the Holy Spirit as well.
  2. Practice it.  We need to find ways to put ourselves in positions that require the power of God that he demonstrated on Easter.  What would some of these positions be?  Seeking out diverse Christian community.  Getting to know our neighbors.  Being willing to put the interests of others before our own, even if we don’t think they deserve it.  Going way out of our comfort zones.  Advocating for justice.  Etc.
  3. Share it.  I mean this in two ways: 1) We need to share the reality of Easter within Christian community; and 2) We need to share the reality of Easter with those who might be far from God in one way or another.  How?  First, by experiencing the power of Easter in front of one another.  This is scary of course!  We might look weird after all.  Second, by encouraging one another to experience the power of Easter themselves.  And third, by listening to one another and then praying for God to demonstrate his power in the areas that we’ve just listened to.

 

What do you think?  How can we make the reality of Easter matter everyday?  Let me know in the comments below!

Jesus Always Provides But always in his way and in his time

Jesus provides.  Always.  But not always how we want.  Can we trust him?  Can we be patient?  Can we be okay with loose ends?  And will we let his provision impact the way that we provide for others?

Jesus Provides for People

In John 6 we see that Jesus had become really popular.  People were following him around.  Lots of people.  And on one particular day Jesus took his disciples up on a mountainside.  The crowd of people followed him up there too.

And when Jesus looked out over them, he knew that the people were hungry.  They must have been far enough away from somewhere for folks to eat, so Jesus asks one of his followers, Philip a question.  He asked, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6.5).

Immediately after this question, Philip and then Andrew seemed a bit confused about who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing by how they answered his question.  But Jesus took a little boy’s lunch and he miraculously turned his lunch into enough food for 5000+ people with leftovers remaining.

But the really cool thing, at least to me, is that Jesus had the people sit down and he served them until everyone had enough.  Jesus’ provision was total.  His miracle didn’t provide a bite or two for everyone.  Nope!  Instead, it provided enough for everyone with plenty remaining.

Friends, Jesus still provides this way today too.  Despite us being like Philip (focused on strategy and not what Jesus can do) and/or Andrew (trusting Jesus but also had a bit of doubt), Jesus finds ways to provide for us.  His provision doesn’t come in ways that we expect.

We think that we need to use our own strategies and resources.  We think that maybe Jesus can do it but then we hedge our bets when push comes to shove.

But he provides.  Always.

But Matt, how do you know?

Well, let me tell you where I’m coming from:

  1. The Bible is full of tons of stories of how God provides for his people.  And since God’s modus operandi never changes, he’s still in the business of providing today too.
  2. As I have read Christian history and seen the thousands of stories of how Jesus provides for all sorts of people (pioneer missionaries, pastors, families, academics, peasants, royalty, and normal people), my faith in Jesus’ provision only grows.
  3. I’ve witnessed how Jesus provides in my life and in the life of my family.  In fact, in the last two years I’ve been on the receiving end of Jesus’ provision a ton – with moving to our current neighborhood, with our son’s adoption, and with being commissioned as an urban missionary.  Jesus provides and I have seen it in our lives over and over and over!
  4. And I’ve seen how God provides for the churches I’ve been a part of and I’ve seen how he provides for my friends and family.  I’ve heard the stories.  I’ve seen the tears of joy.  I’ve listened to the testimonies.  I’ve been there to witness the evidence firsthand.

Jesus Provides But Do We?

When we see a group of people in need, how do we respond?

Well, if we’re honest, we don’t always respond well.  Better, I don’t always respond well.

Sometimes I think things like this: do they deserve to be provided for?can’t someone else use their resources to provide for them?,  I already have done so much; it’s someone else’s turn, etc.

I operate as if I live in a economy of scarcity, even though the God of the universe is the one who provides for me and calls me to provide for others.  I, and we, don’t have to worry about giving  from our stack.  Sure, it might go down for a bit, but Jesus provides, like he always does.

But when Jesus provides, he expects us to provide or others in return.  Will we?

Will we provide for those in need?

Will we take whatever we have access to, give thanks to God for it, and ask him to multiply it for his purposes?

Will we step out in faith, freely giving whatever we have since it’s not ours to begin with?

Will we be greedy or generous with what Jesus has provided?

Will we respond to the way Jesus provides by imitating him or bowing to our selfish desires?

Friends, let’s band together, starting today.  Let’s be radically generous.  Let’s sacrifice our time, our resources, and our talents for the benefit of others.

Let’s respond to God’s blessing by blessing others!

Are you ready for this challenge!?

Let’s do it!

 

What do you think?  Does Jesus always provide?  And how are we to provide for others in response? Let me know in the comments below.

Absurd Trust Jesus Inspires Impractical Faith

At the bottom, faith in Jesus is utterly absurd.  Those of us who have followed Jesus for a long time take completely for granted things that are impossible to understand, much less trust.

Let’s just run through a few things that we believe that are hard to wrap our minds around:

  • God created everything seen and unseen out of absolutely nothing.
  • This all-powerful God of the entire universe cares about each of us.
  • God has always existed as Father, Son, and Spirit — three persons, yet one essence.
  • The second person of the Trinity, Jesus, became fully human while remaining fully God.
  • And Jesus did this because he loves humans, though none of us deserve his love.
  • Jesus, who was fully human, never sinned.
  • Jesus was killed as a rebel but was raised from the dead by the power of God.
  • Subsequent to Jesus’ death, the Spirit was sent to live within all who follow Jesus.
  • The God of the universe empowers his broken followers to live out his divine mission.
  • God calls together a community of diverse people who can love one another more closely than family.
  • And at the end Jesus will return to earth in power to serve as ultimate Judge.

And that’s just a few things!  Any item from that list could be examined on it’s own and could be labeled as patently absurd!

What we believe can really seem bonkers, which is easy to forget when we’re inundated with it all the time.

But there’s another aspect of following Jesus that’s absurd as well, namely, that Jesus can do great things with very little starting material.

We see this very plainly in John 6, which I’ll focus on for the rest of this post.

What’s Absurd in John 6?

Let’s look at John 6.5-9:

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”  Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

It’s pretty easy to see what’s absurd in this passage.  Andrew brings a boy’s small lunch to Jesus in response to a massive and hungry crowd of people.  What did he think Jesus was going to do with such a small amount of food?  Even in offering it us, Andrew waffled a bit when he said “but how far will [it] go among so many?”

Isn’t Philip’s response to Jesus’ question a bit more reasonable?  I mean, doesn’t it make more sense to take in the whole situation, do a quick quantitative analysis, and then present the facts?  Philip was right in what he said.  He was reasonable.  It would take a fortune for everyone to just have a little.

But when Philip was doing his calculations in his head, he forgot about the one huge wildcard, the one factor that makes the absurd possible.  That wildcard, that factor is Jesus.

And, if we remember rightly, Andrew, Philip, and all the rest already know that Jesus deals in the absurd all the time.  He turned a huge amount of water into really fine wine (John 2).  He healed a man who had been disabled for more than most people lived at the time (John 5).  And now a huge group of people were following him around because he had healed the sick (John 6.2).

They should have and could have known better.  And they perhaps would have known better had either of them been given three days to think things through.

But right there in the moment Andrew leaned on being realistic and strategic.  And even though Philip’s response could be seen as hopeful or even faithful, he ultimately hedged his bets by casting doubt on the situation.

We know the end of this story, Jesus causes the absurd once more.  He turns this little boy’s lunch into enough food to feed 5000+ people to fullness, with a bunch of leftovers remaining.

Jesus didn’t just use this as an opportunity to feed some people who would get hungry again.  No!  Instead, for Jesus this became a prime opportunity to engage in some leadership development.  Jesus knew that for his followers to begin truly to have absurd faith, they would have to be walked through the process carefully.  And he was willing and patient enough to take on this task.

Absurd Faith Today

What about now? Is Jesus still walking us through opportunities to trust him, no matter how crazy the scenarios we face might be?

Is he still teaching us to be curious and faithful?

The answers, of course, are “yes.”

Think abut this: Jesus came to accomplish a major rescue and restoration project on all of humanity.  He got the ball rolling (to put it lightly!) and then he entrusted this mission to us.

Us.  Broken, sinful, untrusting us.  How utterly ridiculous!

How does he expect us to do this?  How does Jesus expect us to help him fulfill this mission?

Here are a few initial thoughts:

  1. Seek divine guidance. The first thing that we must do in order to build absurd trust in God into our lives is by reaching out to him.  We need to pray and ask God to help us trust him more and more.  And when we face crazy situations in life, and we will!, that’s when we need to pray for his guidance…and then do whatever he leads us to do!  And it will help us to peruse the Scriptures seeking to learn how God taught others to have this kind of trust in him and then attempt to make ourselves open to the same kind of divine assistance too.  And, very importantly, we will be best served to seek this divine guidance within community so that we can hold each other accountable and encourage one another.
  2. Submit to the Spirit. “Submit” is a pretty dirty word these days but it’s vital if we want to trust God more and more.  Why?  Because we are tempted to submit to all sorts of other things and people…and we often give in!  What are some of those things that compete for our submission?  Our selfish desires, our friends and family, our bosses, out cultural standards, money, power, possessions, comfort, etc., etc.  Instead of submitting to all of those things, let’s submit to the Spirit, who will most assuredly lead us into deeper faith.
  3. Hold to our strategies loosely. Philip wasn’t wrong to think things through.   But perhaps he was wrong in that he held to his strategy too tightly; so much so that he couldn’t see past it.  So as we seek to be closer to Jesus, become more missional, lead better, be better spouses, friends, parents, etc., let’s not let our versions of what will work get in the way of God’s version of what actually will work!
  4. Give to Jesus what we have access to. I’m being a little bit tongue-in-cheek here because Jesus already owns all that we have and all that we can potentially get.  It’s all his.  But when we pretend that we can selfishly hold stuff for ourselves, we miss out on opportunities to see what God might do with whatever we have to offer, even if it’s just some bread and fish.  So, our job is to turn all that we steward back to God (not just 10%)!  In so doing we will witness him do great things with what we have given him, thus making us more likely to trust him the next time!
  5. Be consistent in our efforts. It is hard to have absurd faith that God can do anything.  But as we make a habit of doing it more and more, it will become a more regular occurrence in our lives.  It will never be easy because we all still have to deal with the gravitational pull of our selfishness.  But with consistency we can build habits that in turn will grow into deeply-rooted patterns of behavior.  And that’s the zone that we all want to be in!
  6. Allow our trust to grow with evidence. But the Enemy and our old way of doing things won’t quit easily!  When we exhibit this kind of faith in God and he comes through like he so often does (though in surprising ways that don’t always match our expectations), we might be tempted to explain away how God moved.  Maybe it was a fluke.  Maybe it was really our efforts and skill.  Maybe this, maybe that.  But if we give God the credit he deserves, then our trust in him can grow so that the next time we’ll be a bit more likely to lean on him no matter what.

 

What do you think about absurd faith?  What’s difficult about it?  How can we make it a larger part of our lives?  Let me know in the comments below!

Bibliolatry Placing the Bible in God's Place

In certain circles the word bibliolatry gets thrown around a lot.  I think it will be good for us to look at what it means, why it is important, and how we can respond.

What Is Biblolatry

Lots of people define it in lots of different ways.  Here’s a sampling:

Excessive reverence for the Bible as literally interpreted. ~Dictionary.com

Having excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible. ~Tim Challies

Worship of the Bible. It is often used as an accusation that those who take the Bible literally are placing the Bible in the position of God, worshiping the Bible rather than the God of the Bible. ~CompellingTruth.org

I think that I am more inclined toward the last definition.  Why?  Because I have known many hardcore fundamentalist Christians who attempt to interpret the Bible “literally” and who have extreme “reverence for the letter of the Bible” but who did not “worship” the Bible in any real sense.  To put it differently, they never placed the Bible in the place of God.

So, here’s my definition of biblolatry: Worshiping the Bible instead of the God of the Bible.

I want to unpack that a bit, because the phrase “worshiping the Bible” can be easily misunderstood.

According to the Bible itself, there is only one object of worship which is worthy of worship: God alone.  We see this most plainly in the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5.7).  Only God deserves that loftiest position.

And yet, from time to time and in a variety of ways, we may place the Bible in that position.  How might we do this?

All the things I’m about to list are things that I’ve been guilty of from time to time in my own life.  But they are all things that I now try to avoid:

  1. Treating a copy of the Bible we own with an unusual and superstitious amount of respect.  I’m sure you’ve seen what I’m talking about — not letting the Bible touch the floor, obsessing over the condition of each page of the Bible, never placing another book on top of the Bible, etc.  This is just silly.  The copy of the Bible in question is simply a collection of paper, ink, and (p)leather.  It is not God.
  2. Viewing the Bible as some sort of magical device to help us feel better.  I’ve done what I’m about to describe more often than I’d like to admit.  I’m having a bad day, so I flip his Bible open to a random page and scour that page for something to help mefeel better.  This is just silly.  Treating the Bible this way equates it with other silly things that people make into idols: like horoscopes and the like.
  3. Thinking that the words of the Bible are more important than the God who inspired them.  This one is harder to nail down into a concrete example.  But I fear that sometimes we all get so wrapped up in the words of the Bible itself that we become blinded to the God who stands behind them.  Again, this is just silly.  God is to be worshiped, not the Bible!  So perhaps from time to time we all need to lift our noses out of our Bibles and remember to direct the vast majority of spiritual attention toward God himself.  Even our study of the Bible should direct us toward God.  Instead of reading it for its own sake, maybe we should look for how our reading of the Bible points us to God, and dwell there instead of on the words themselves.
  4. Thinking that there exists within the Bible itself some secret code that will unlock the mysteries of the universe, the end times, etc., etc.  This isn’t one that I’ve gotten into much, though I dabbled in it a bit as a late teen thanks to my obsession then with eschatology.  This mentality has been most clearly seen in the all the Bible Code books (I’ll let you find them on your own if you want to).  This is just silly too.  The words of the Bible aren’t magic and they aren’t hiding anything.  Instead, they’re intended to turn us toward God, not Christian conspiracy theories!

Why Does Bibliolatry Matter?

You might be thinking something like this: Who cares Matt!  As long as someone is reading the Bible, that’s a good thing, right?  And you aren’t completely wrong.  It is better that someone worship the Bible than something else, I guess.

But in the end, bibliolatry is just as wrong as any other form of idolatry.  Why?  Because it violates the first commandment, plain and simple.

So then, if bibliolatry is wrong, which it is, and is to be avoided, which it should, then what is the correct way to view the Bible?  I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus talks about this very topic in John 5.  I’ve written some about this chapter of John before (here and here), but I’ll set the scene again.  Jesus healed a man who had been suffering for many, many years (John 5.1-9a).  This healing happened on the Sabbath, which made some Jewish leaders angry because they believed that what transpired was considered work and Jews weren’t to work on the Sabbath (John 5.9b-16a).  So these leaders confronted Jesus (John 5.16b) and Jesus came back at them with a long diatribe in which he expertly defended himself (John 5.17-47).

And during part of Jesus’ long speech he said this:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5.39-40)

Ouch!  Jesus really hits them where it hurts.  These Jewish leaders were likely Pharisees, who were considered to be experts in the law and taught it to the people with regularity.  And here Jesus tells them that their life’s work, studying the Scriptures diligently. was ultimately misguided.  This must have really struck at their core identity, which is never fun.

To put all of this in different words: Jesus told these Jewish leaders that they were guilty of bibliolatry.  They were worshiping the Bible and not the God of the Bible.  Specifically, they thought that they could be receive eternal life through their study of the Scriptures, when their only way of accessing eternal life, Jesus himself, was standing right in front of them!

So, to bring things back to today, bibliolatry matters because when we worship the Bible instead of Jesus, we run the risk of placing our faith and the hope of our salvation in the wrong place!

How Can We Respond to Bibliolatry?

Here are a few ideas about how to respond to the threat of bibliolatry:

  • Focus on Jesus. What makes the Bible special is that it is inspired by God and through it Jesus is best revealed to the world.  Thus, as we read the Bible, we should focus more on Jesus and less on the words themselves.  I know this is a fine distinction.  But we can easily be bogged down and miss Jesus who is revealed all throughout the Bible!
  • Allow the Bible to do its job.  In 2 Timothy 3.16-17 the job of the Bible is described this way: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  So as we read and study the Bible, are we allowing it to teach, rebuke, correct, and train us in righteousness?  And is their proof in our lives that our Bible reading and study is working?  What might that proof be?  Well the passage from 2 Timothy plainly tells us that if we let the Bible do its job in our lives, then we will be better equipped to do every good work.  Mindblown.  The true test of whether or not we are using the Bible properly just might be whether or not we are doing the good works that God has prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2.10)!
  • Read the Bible with others.  Like many other things in life, community can help!  If we only read the Bible alone, then we very well may become worshipers of it instead of Jesus.  Conversely, if we read and study the Bible with others, especially if that group of people is diverse in a variety of ways, then we can build in safeguards against bibliolatry.  (Please note that I’m not saying that we should never read the Bible alone.  I am, however, saying that we should always have a healthy dose of communal Bible reading!)
  • Obey what we read.  Perhaps the truest sign of bibliolatry is that we spend all of our time reading and studying the Bible and spend almost no time doing what it says (other than the whole “meditate on the law” part!).  Jesus didn’t die so that we could all sit with our faces gazing down at our Bible-filled laps.  No!  He died so that we could join him in his cosmic mission to make all things right by reconciling them himself!  And as we read the Bible, it should inspire us to join in that mission, not avoid it by merely learning more about it!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Studying the Bible is greatly important!  I’ve devoted my entire adult life to this task.  But our love for the Bible should never rival our love for Jesus and our devotion to the Bible should never deter us from living out the mission of Jesus in the real world.

 

The danger of bibliolatry is real but quite subtle.  Do you agree?  If so, let me know how you think we should deal with this danger in the comments below.  If not, why not?  Let me know below!

People > Rules Jesus always chooses people over rules

“Rules were made to be broken.”

While this old adage is said a lot, it’s definitely not true!

It seems to me that in most cases rules are meant to protect us in one form or another.  And sometimes they are made to ensure that we follow best practices.

But almost without a single doubt, rules were not made to be broken.

However, are there times when they should be broken?  Are there cases in which the rule, which was intended to protect or direct toward best practices, isn’t the best option?

Well, in John 5 we see Jesus choosing something above following a rule.

Rules and Jesus

First things first, Jesus wasn’t against all rules.  In fact, when Jesus was asked what the best ones were, he didn’t say “There are no rules, just love people.”  Nope.  Instead he said, “Here is the best rule: Love God, and the second one is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22.36-40).  Then after he had died and been raised again, Jesus gave his followers a rule.  He told them that as they were going about that they must make disciples (I phrased this sentence this way so that the fact that the command in Greek is not “go” but “make disciples”) (Matthew 28.19-20).

So Jesus didn’t dislike rules.  But he clearly understood that too many rules muddied things up.  If there are a thousand things we are supposed to be doing or not doing, then we may spend all of our time thinking about those “dos and don’ts” instead of living the lives that God set out for us.  And Jesus consistently encountered people who did this — the Pharisees.

Rules and the Pharisees

The Pharisees were not all bad guys, despite how we tend to think of them.  There’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.  And Gamiliel seems like a good guy too.  And Paul, who was a Pharisee, would eventually come around too.

But even the “bad” Pharisees weren’t setting out to be bad.  They were focused on performing the works of the law in order to worship God well.  They weren’t trying to be bad guys and they weren’t hoping to be exclusive and dogmatic.  Instead they were doing the best they could with the tradition in which they lived.

So in John 5 when Jesus encounters some uber-rule-loving Pharisees (called “Jewish leaders there), it’s easy to paint them in the worst possible light.  But that’s not fair.  Their insistence on not working on the Sabbath has biblical and cultural roots.  They weren’t pulling this rule out of thin air to attack Jesus.

However, they’re focus was wrong.

Rules Can Distract Our Focus

In the first part of John 5 Jesus heals a man who had been suffering for decades.  It just so happens that this healing happened on the Sabbath (John 5.9b).  When some of the Jewish leaders saw that this man was healed and was carrying his mat (which is considered work), they pounced!  Their rule-breaker lights went off and they went into action.

They first told this man that he shouldn’t be carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  The man says that the person who healed him told him to do so.  The Jewish leaders insisted on knowing who the healer was but the healed man didn’t know.  (He would eventually find out and tell the Jewish leaders, who then got super angry at Jesus!)

But here’s the point: The Jewish leaders’ focus on the rules didn’t allow them to see what was right in front of their faces.  They totally missed the fact that this man was healed!  Their focus was so narrowly aimed at the Sabbath rules, that they entirely missed an opportunity to praise God that he had healed this man!

 

This makes me wonder about what sorts of rules prevent us from seeing God do his thing in our day.  What are we focused on so much so that we miss out on what Jesus is doing through his Spirit?  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

But here’s the big idea from this post: Jesus put the man who needed healing above rules — in fact, Jesus almost always put people before rules.  Therefore, as we seek to follow Jesus in the real world, we too should put people and their well-being above rules, especially those rules that are not the focus of Jesus himself.

 

What do you think?  Are people always greater than rules?  What rules do we tend to focus on more than people?  And is doing it the way Jesus did it even possible or practical for us today?  Let me know in the comments below!