Organized Religion Is it as evil as people make it out to be?

Organized religion, especially the “institutional” church in the West, has gotten a lot of flack in recent years.  Is this popular negative assessment fair?  What can we learn about organized religion from the life of Jesus?

organized religion

By: fusion-of-horizons Doesn’t this church look like some kind of Eldar building fromWarhammer 40k? Bonus points if you have any idea what I’m talking about here!     

Organized Religion and It’s Perception

It seems rather obvious that people are less and less into organized religion these days.  Church attendance is down and continues to decrease, so much so that some church buildings are being converted into night clubs, small businesses, and residences.

And when surveyed, people are increasingly saying that they’re spiritual but not religious.  Usually what people seem to mean by this is that they want to believe in a higher power or a generically loving Jesus, but not be connected to the big “C” Church with all of its baggage.

Perhaps THE voice for this movement is Jefferson Bethke, the star of a viral YouTube video entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus || Spoken Word.”  Here it is:

His piece of poetry was so popular that he ended up getting a book deal out of it (here’s the link to the book: Jesus > Religion).

Why is this the case?  Why do so many people want to be spiritual but also want to distance themselves from organized religion?

Here are a few ideas that come to my mind:

  • Organized religion represents closed-mindedness and bigotry for many, especially younger people.
  • Many people were hurt directly or indirectly by organized religion.  Maybe there was abuse, neglect, or misuse of power.  And perhaps people’s parents forced religion on them.
  • Maybe some people don’t like the feeling that religion brings with it obligations to obey things while being spiritual is more nebulous.
  • Being spiritual seems more open and inclusive than organized religion is typically represented.
  • And being spiritual is much less political in nature than being associated with organized religion tends to be.

I’m sure that there are dozens of other reasons (let me know some in the comments below!), but the point is this: many people are not pleased with organized religion these days.

Jesus and Organized Religion

And another reason that many people give for their disdain for organized religion goes something like this: Jesus was more about the heart and spirituality than all that religious stuff!

But is this sentiment true?  What do the authors of the Gospels reveal to us about Jesus’ connection to organized religion?

This morning I was doing my devotional time and I began reading John 5.  I didn’t get very far before something stood out to me.  Here it is (John 5.1):

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.

This verse is easily passed over when reading the exciting narratives of John 4 and 5.  But it highlights something interesting: Jesus was involved in organized religion.

Jesus left his home-base and traveled by foot or caravan to Jerusalem.  Why?  Did he like the mall in Jerusalem?  Nope!  He went up to Israel’s capital in order to participate in a Jewish festival.

To repeat: Jesus was involved in organized religion.

So the mentality that Jesus hated organized religion and was only about spirituality is simply wrong, the text doesn’t support this idea.

However, we should note that when Jesus engaged in organized religion, he did so in ways that brought glory to God and furthered his mission, the Missio Dei.

Often, when we engage in organized religion we do so out of obligation or tradition.  And even when we have good intentions, we often simply support the status quo of the religious group we’re part of instead of pursuing Jesus and his mission at all costs.

In the story in John 5, Jesus went up to celebrate the festivals.  But as he was in Jerusalem he kept his eyes open — and in so doing he met someone in need and helped him out.

At another time Jesus preached at a synagogue, another example of Jesus engaging in organized religion (Luke 4).  But, again, Jesus did so in ways that furthered God’s glory and mission, this time encouraging the people to share the good news with the downcast (which wasn’t a popular message).

And there are many, many other examples of how Jesus engaged in organized religion.

In fact, this was such a common part of Jesus’ ministry, that his earliest followers did the same.  Check out this passage from the first part of Acts 2.46:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

The earliest followers of Jesus were involved in organized religion too, meeting in the temple courts.  Later, in Acts 3.1, we see Peter and John following Jesus again, going to the temple but keeping their eyes open to further God’s glory and mission by helping someone out.

And, lastly in this section, Paul almost always started ministry in a new area by preaching in the synagogue or whatever other organized gathering of Jews he could find.  And when he did so, he always found ways to point to the love and grace of Jesus.  In other words, Paul was involved in organized religion as well.

So What Does This Mean for Us Today?

So Jesus and his earliest followers didn’t shy away from organized religion.  Why, then, should we?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to follow their leads (especially that of Jesus) by engaging in organized religion but always with an eye toward bringing God glory and furthering his kingdom?

Here are a few initial thoughts about how we can move forward today:

  1. “Because” is not a good reason.  We need a better reason to be engaged in organized religion than “because.”  It’ not enough that we feel like we should or someone we love wants us to.  And “that’s the way we’ve always done things” isnot enough either.
  2. Actually ENGAGE in organized religion. Just like Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and so many others, we should participate in organized religion on purpose.  As we do so, are there people for us to love?  Are there unhelpful tradition for us to challenge?  Are there opportunities to share and embody the good news?
  3. Make religion about connection.  From the beginning of God’s calling us to gather to worship him together, he did so in order that we would connect with him and with one another.  In fact, from eternity past and into eternity future, the Triune God has always been about connection, engaging in the divine and mysterious dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And as we gather to worship him together, we join in that dance, thus connecting with God and with one another.

 

What do you think?  What value is there to be found in organized religion?  And how do we avoid its potential pitfalls?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

Opportunity Taking Advantage of Each Moment

opportunistic

An Opportunity Missed

I’m not even sure that I can tabulate the number of times that I’ve missed out on chances that were right in front of my face.  Tons.  Every day.  From the time I was young up until today.

Today.

I parked my car and walked to our house.  As I did I walked by my neighbors’ place.  They had just moved in and one of them was working in the garage.  I had a thousand things to do, sure, but I could have offered to help.

Or I could have at least said hello.

But I didn’t.

I let the opportunity slip right by.

And what makes this especially bad is twofold:

First, I said hi to two other neighbors and even had a brief conversation with a third.  Why couldn’t I at least say hello to the new neighbor?

And second, I’m the guy that encourages people to be missional and to live life like God has set up divine appointments for us.  Honestly, I feel a little hypocritical right now.

But this little anecdote is serving (and will hopefully continue to serve) as a kick in the pants to take advantage of each opportunity that comes my way!

Jesus Faces an Awkward Opportunity

In John 4 Jesus and his closest friends were tired (even Jesus got tired…see, he was fully human!).  They had been traveling all day and Jesus’ disciples went to go get some food.  Jesus didn’t go with them, instead he went and sat by the well in the Samaritan town named Sychar.

It was the middle of the day.  This wasn’t the time of day that folks generally went to the well to get water.  That activity was usually reserved for cooler parts of the day, like the morning or just before sunset.

But as Jesus sat by the well, a woman came up to draw water.  Even if Jesus wasn’t the second Person of the Trinity, he could have worked out that this woman was not well-liked by many people in town.  If she was, she would have drawn water when others did so that they could say hi to one another and catch up on the latest news and gossip.

But here she was.  In the middle of the day.  By herself.

Clearly she was a bit of an outcast.

And Jesus was the leader of a new religious movement and was considered by many to be a rabbi, or a traveling teacher.  And in his day, religious movement leaders and rabbis did not associate with the type of women that drew water in the middle of the day.

And to make this an even more awkward opportunity for the two of them, Jesus was a man and the woman was, well, a woman.  Men and women typically did not have much public interaction, and a rabbi certainly would try to avoid such a scandalous action.

And culturally there was a barrier too: Jesus was a Jew and this woman was a Samaritan.  These two groups had a nasty history and did not get along at all!

But the cherry on the top of this banana split of an opportunity was the fact that Jesus was tired.  He could have totally checked out and no one would have blamed him.  He had been traveling all day.  He needed some “me time.”

But Jesus didn’t let all of these hurdles prevent him from taking advantage of this opportunity.

He asked her for a drink.

He started a conversation.

He made an intentional act to reach out to her.

We Need To Take Advantage of Each Opportunity Too

Here’s the call to action: Let’s be like Jesus and take advantage of each opportunity that we face!

Here are some ways forward:

  1. Pay Attention — It’s so easy these days to completely check out of the reality around us.  We can chat on our phones, text, check Facebook, play music, etc., etc.  We all have a thousand and one ways we can stay completely distracted from our surroundings.  If we’re distracted, it’s going to be hard to even see an opportunity, much less take advantage of one.  So maybe we all need to put our phones down, take our headphones off, and pay a bit more attention to our surroundings.
  2. Start Simple — Jesus asked for a drink.  I should have just said hello.  We’re not talking about rocket science or brain surgery here!  When an opportunity arises, simply start somewhere comfortable and natural.  Here’s an example: you’re walking in the mall and someone drops their bags.  You can help them pick their stuff up and say something like, “Man, I do that all the time.”  That may start an important conversation that could change the course of both of your lives.  Or it may lead no where else.  Either is fine!
  3. Practice Makes Perfect — Over time these sorts of encounters will become more natural and more a part of our routines.  We won’t feel so awkward when we’re faced with an opportunity.  We’ll just take it!  But in order to get there we need to feel our way through that awkward phase first.  And that’s okay.  For some of us, like me, it might always be a bit awkward.  For others, like my wonderful wife Alida, being set free to take advantage of each opportunity sounds amazing.  Persistence is the key for all of us though!  It will get easier and more natural!  And when we fail to take advantage of each opportunity, which will happen, we can’t beat ourselves up.  Let’s just admit our mistake and move on!
  4. Don’t Discriminate — Even though none of us like to admit it, we all pick and choose who to talk to, who to smile at, and who to invest in.  Those of us who follow Jesus, however, shouldn’t pick and choose.  We shouldn’t try to stay away from certain people, no matter the reason.  We should reach out and connect with whomever when given the opportunity!
  5. Pray — Lastly, we should pray.  First, we should pray that God will bring people across our paths so that we can connect with.  Second, we should pray that the Spirit of God would aid us as we attempt to take advantage of each opportunity.  And third, as we are engaging in conversation, we should be internally praying that God would inspire us to share the good news with those we come into contact with, in tangible ways and by using our words too.

 

So, what do you think?  What about taking advantage of each opportunity seems hard to you?  What seems easy?  How should a follower of Jesus go about taking advantage of each opportunity?  Let me know in the comments below!

The Ugliness of Envy How to ensure that you'll be unappealing and unattractive!

I think we all have that one friend, co-worker, or family member who insists on being annoyed that anyone else has anything good going on for them.  Do you know what I’m talking about?

This condition is called “envy” and it is really pretty unseemly and downright ugly!

But I think if we’re all honest, then we know that we exhibit lots of envy in our lives too.  So that means that our behaviors, words, and attitudes make us pretty ugly to others too.  (Did you see what I did there…”pretty ugly”…get it!?)

Envy

Green with Envy

Envy Invades Us All

Recently my wife and I were having a conversation and I was talking about someone that we both know.  Everything in his life has seemingly just come together without much effort while many things in my life have taken great struggle and persistence.  I went on and on and eventually I veered off into envy territory.  I started saying things like “Well, if I were him…” and “It would be nice if my life were as easy as his…”

My guess is that this story resonates with you.  Envy is real and its reach extends to each one of us.

The Impact of Envy

What’s so bad about envy?  Some people argue that envy doesn’t really hurt anyone, so why would God tell us not to envy what our neighbors have (cf. the 10 commandments)?

Well, I think there are two reasons, at least:

  1. Envy is a sign that we can’t be content with what we have.  Envy is primary side effect of the disease known as “I wish I had that other stuff over there.”  Honestly, envy communicates loudly that our desire for things we don’t have trumps our desire for God and his will in this world.  And I’m pretty convinced that it is envy that drives our desire for more stuff, more stuff, and more stuff.  If someone else has it, then I have to too!
  2. Envy impacts the people around us.  Check out John 4.1-2: “Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John — although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.”  Do you see it?  The envy of the Pharisees about who was more popular led to Jesus leaving Judea and returning to Galilee.  Their envy impacted Jesus’ plans.  The same is true in our worlds — our envy impacts the people around us.

Envy Solution

So what’s the answer to envy?  Well, I don’t think there’s a quick fix.

Honestly, I think we have to start by being totally satisfied with God and God alone.  If we lost it all but still had him, would we be okay?  Would we be happy?  Or are we so tied to our stuff and relationships that we can’t exist without them?

A second area to work on would is being content with what we have (cf. Philippians 4).  Do we really need more shoes, more gadgets, more square footage, and more fame?  Will it ever be enough?

And a third way to combat envy would be to surround ourselves with community, the kind of community that will love us, correct us, encourage us, and hold us accountable.  So when we start exhibiting signs of envy, they can call us on it and help us change.

Lastly, a fourth way would be to pray.  We need to ask God to help us.  We can’t do this on our own — we’ll always default back to envy.  We need the internal power that only God can provide through the indwelling presence of the Spirit.

 

What do you think?  How big of a problem is envy and what can we do about it?  Let me know in the comments below.

Grow Your Capacity Starting Today

Do you feel stuck?  Does it seem like you have hit a limit to what you are able to accomplish?  Does it feel like you have done your best and yet there’s still so much more that you’d like to do?

These questions, and others like them, can apply to our lives in lots of different areas — relationships, business, spirituality, personal achievement, education, etc., etc.  There are certainly times in each of our lives when we don’t imagine that there aren’t many more ways we can grow.

We’ve exhausted all our known paths and options and we’ve advanced as far as our current situation would seem to allow.

And that’s when we stop.  That’s when it seems like our capacity for growth has totally dried up.

But is this true?  Is it generally true that folks have an upper capacity above which they can’t grow?  And what about for followers of Jesus…what is our capacity like?

capacity

How full is your glass? To the top? Or have you set a limit for yourself that is below your full capacity?
By: Claire Cessford

 

Capacity Without Measure

As I’ve mentioned before, the Gospel of John is full of “sent” language.  It’s all over the place!  The implication is that those who follow Jesus are sent; we’re not to be lazy or passive!

And one of the places where this sent language shows up prominently is in John 3.34.  Here’s what it says:

For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.

Now, to be clear, the “one whom God has sent” in this passage is referring to Jesus.  Jesus’ testimony about himself is legitimate because he speaks God’s words in a completely unadulterated fashion.  And, furthermore, Jesus was given the Spirit without limit or measure, meaning that while others in human history prior to Jesus experienced the Spirit of God, it was only for a time.  Jesus, however, had total and complete access to the Spirit when he was on earth.  All that God sent Jesus to do could be accomplished because Jesus had total access to the Spirit.  His capacity was only limited by his human-ness (he could get sleepy and hungry and the like, he could only be in one place at a time, he experienced time sequentially the way all humans do, etc.).

You may be thinking at this point something like this: Matt, I thought you were going to talk about how we could have a growing capacity, not that Jesus did!

Well, there are several things to think about.  In John 14.17 Jesus promises to send the Spirit to his followers and he says that the Spirit will be with them and live in them.  Later in the same chapter, Jesus says that the Spirit will teach them “all things” (14.26).  Two chapters later Jesus tells his followers that the Spirit whom he will send will guide them into all truth (16.13).  Then in John 16.14-15 Jesus says that what the Spirit says he got from Jesus and what Jesus says he got from God.  Lastly, in John 20.21 Jesus says that he is sending his followers in the same way he as sent, which, among many things, implies that they too will be sent with the Spirit.

In other words, the Spirit that Jesus had access to without limit is the same Spirit that indwells his followers!

Friends, this is great news indeed!  We have been granted the greatest gift that we could possibly receive on this side of eternity: the Spirit of God will live in us!  He will inspire us, move us, teach us, guide us, convict us, and empower us.

He will allow our capacity to only be limited by our human-ness as well.  Like Jesus when he was on earth, we get tired and hungry, we are only able to be in one place at a time, etc., etc.  But in the same way, just as Jesus was filled to capacity with the Spirit as he walked and talked on earth, we too are filled to the brim!  The Spirit of God is with us!

 

Grow Your Capacity!

So our capacity is much higher than we probably imagined.  How do we tap this uncharted capacity?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Pray.  Ask God to help you submit more and more to the Spirit.  Why?  Well, if it is the Spirit who can grant us all that we need (thus growing our capacity), then we must learn to trust him and lean on him more than we currently do.  So we need to ask God to show us how to trust the Spirit!
  2. Seek community.  There’s little that will help you increase your capacity more than being in a Christ-centered, Spirit-filled community of folks who long to live out God’s mission in this world.  You will be encouraged, pushed, and guided.  You will learn that growing your capacity isn’t something to accomplished alone; you need others!
  3. Change your inputs.  Be honest, what are your daily inputs?  Mine look like this: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, podcasts, television programs, Youtube videos, conversations with friends, and, if I feel especially compelled, the Bible.  What if I flipped my input priorities, placing more importance on hearing from God within the Bible and from my community?  Would my life change?  I’m totally convinced that it would!

 

So friends, when you get down and think there’s no way out — that’s okay.  Feeling depressed, sad, and stuck are real emotions and you feeling them is not a bad thing.  But in just the way you need him to, the Spirit of God can provide you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Don’t you need those things?  I know I do!

 

What do you think?  As a follower of Jesus, why do we sometimes buy the lie that our capacity is very limited?  And what would change in your life if you really lived like the Spirit of God lived inside of you?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

Sent

For an assignment at work I’ve been re-reading all the Gospels, which has been great!  And just the other day I read the Gospel of John all in one setting and I noticed something striking: there is a ton of “sent” language in John!

Everywhere you look in John someone is being sent.  Usually it’s Jesus who is saying that he was sent by the Father.  But there are times when Jesus says that he will send the Holy Spirit and there are a few important instances of Jesus saying that he will send his disciples in the same manner in which he was sent.

As you [Father] sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world (John 17.18).

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20.21).

From a missional perspective, these are two of the most important verses in the entire Gospel of John.  Why?  What makes them so special?

5 Ways of Looking at Being Sent in the Gospel of John

    1. We are all sent.  Another way of saying this is that we’re all missional.  Jesus sent the disciples, whom he prayed for in John 17.  Then Jesus prayed for those who would follow in the footsteps of the disciples, those who would believe in their message.  Those people are us, followers of Jesus who came after the disciples.  Thus, we are sent like they were sent.  Honestly though, not all of us live into our sentness.  We all have some work to do!
    2. We are sent by Jesus.  This one is huge.  Jesus sends us out and we go with his blessing and authority.  In fact, in one of the craziest passages in all of the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples that they will do greater things than he did while he was on earth (John 14.12).  But Jesus did some amazing things!  He stood up to religious authorities, turned water into wine, and raised a dead guy from the grave!  But his following didn’t expand very far.  It was the first followers of Jesus that expanded Jesus’ influence and we continue to do that today!  And, if I do say so myself, that’s pretty great!
    3. We are sent into the world.  John 17.18 is clear, followers of Jesus are sent into the world.  Why is this important to point out?  Isn’t this a no-brainer?  Well, you’d think so.  But if you examine the behavior of Christians these days, then you’d probably deduce that they think they’re sent to church campuses, christian schools, christian stores, etc., etc.  But we aren’t!  We’re sent into the world!  Do church campuses and explicitly christian things have a place in the life of a follower of Jesus?  Of course — as places to be trained up and be equipped in order to live out our sentness in the world!  Derwin Gray says it best, “Sunday is the huddle to equip us to play the game of life!”  So the world isn’t something to be avoided; it’s something to be sent into!
    4. We are sent with a purpose.  All throughout John Jesus makes his basic message clear: he has a new command for his followers: love people (John 13.34, 13.35, 15.12, etc.).  And what is love?  Love is putting the interests of others first no matter the cost (Phil 2.3-4).  Love is doing for others what you’d have them do for you (Matthew 7.12).  Love is laying down your life for others (John 15.13).  So that’s our purpose!  If you’ve ever wondered about what you should be doing as a follower of Jesus…well, here are our standing orders: Love the heck out of people!
    5. We are sent as Jesus was sent.  John 17.18 and 20.21 say this very thing explicitly.  But what does this idea mean?  How was Jesus sent?  He was sent in humility — born in a stable, placed in a feeding trough, part of a poor family, became a homeless preacher, and constantly put the interests of others before his own.  He was sent incarnationally — Jesus put on flesh and became one of us.  He poured himself into our stinky, difficult, and sometimes sad world.  Jesus didn’t do love at a distance (get in, get out, and no one notices you were there). In community — Jesus was born into a family, lived in a community, and formed a band of disciples. He generally never went at it alone, so neither should we! In power — Jesus had power and authority in his earthly ministry and he has made the same power and authority available to those who follow him through the Spirit. Followers of Jesus have nothing to fear!

What do you think about the idea of being sent? Are we all sent?

Let me know in the comments below!

The Watching World

The World Is Watching

People are watching folks who follow Jesus.  They see what we are doing.  They’re watching how we live.  They notice us.

Why does this simple fact — that the world is watching — matter?

Well, it matters because our words communicate some but our lives speak much more.  Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, has studied this matter a lot and has determined that 93% of communication is nonverbal (body language, nonverbal vocal cues, etc.).  That’s crazy!

Think about that for a minute.  What we do and how we do it communicates a ton, way more than our actual words do!

So what does this mean?  Well, this is not a call to legalism.  You may be thinking, “But if what we do matters to people, then shouldn’t we always behave uber-properly, so that they get a good view of Jesus?

Here’s my short answer: “No” and “Yes.”

Here’s the longer answer: “No” because if we get focused on the details of doing what we think is right (or what we’re told is right) people see that too.  They’ll pick up really quickly that we care more about doing what’s proper than we do about people.  And “Yes” because behaving ethically and in ways that promote justice are centrally important.  Ethics and the pursuit of justice are different than following rules out of obligation.  Why?  Because ethics and seeking justice have to do with making sure that other people in the world are taken care of (Phil 2.3-4), whereas legalistic behavior is inherently self-centered.

People will see the difference.  They’ll notice if we’re following rules because doing so is right or if we’re seeking the best for others despite whatever personal cost there may be.

An Example of Living While the World Is Watching

Who can serve as a good example of living an others-centered life well while the world is watching?  None other than Jesus!

Check this out: “During the Passover feast in Jerusalem, the crowds were watching Jesus closely; and many began to believe in Him because of the signs He was doing” (John 2.23 in The Voice**).

Did you see that?  People were watching Jesus too.  They saw his life.  They observed the signs he performed.  They saw his love for his close friends.  They witnessed his miracles and concern for the marginalized.  And, of course, they heard his teaching.

And what did people see Jesus do in John 2?  They saw him turn water into wine, thus preventing a wedding party from being lame and bringing shame on the groom and his family, and they saw him exercise his passion for proper worship and justice when he cleared out the temple.

They saw Jesus’ actions, actions which were for the benefit of others.  John also says that people saw other signs he was doing, and if these unspecified signs were anything like all of Jesus’ other signs, then they too were done for the benefit of others.

Here’s the crux: People saw what Jesus was doing, and when the watching world looked at him they saw him living for the benefit of others.

What Does the Watching World See in Us?

The answer to this question has been studied quite a bit.  Here’s what researchers have found: When people are asked to describe Christians they saw we are judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%).

The fairness of the criticisms may be unfair.  But what is not up for debate is that these descriptors are what people see in us.  This is how the watching world describes us.

This situation is sad, of course.  But all hope is not lost.

One relationship at a time with people who are watching us, we can change people’s opinions.  We can be accepting the way that Jesus was.  We can be less judgmental and more loving.  We can learn to be shockproof when we encounter messed up stuff in the world.  We can be more open and honest about our own sinfulness.  We can stop pretending we have it all together and that we have all the answers.

In short, we can live others-focused lives the way Jesus did.  To paraphrase a theme from one of my favorite books, Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth, by one of my favorite authors, Hugh Halter: A follower of Jesus is a person who lives Jesus’ human life in his or her human life.

How do we live Jesus’ human life?  Well, we need to find out how Jesus lived by reading about his life in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Then we need to gather some friends around us who also want to live Jesus’ life in their lives and start doing the things we see Jesus doing.  We need to pray for each other, celebrate together, hold each other accountable, and encourage one another.

I can’t emphasize this enough: DON’T TRY THIS ALONE.  Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, didn’t even try this alone!  What makes you or me think that we can do it?  Here’s a good place for you and your friends to start together: The Tangible Kingdom Primer, by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay.

So, the watching world is watching us closely.  What are they seeing?  And what can we do about it?

 

** The Voice is a newer translation of the Bible that I highly recommend.  It was put together by a team of biblical scholars and artists, so it is faithful to the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) but it is written in very easy-to-read English.  This is a perfect Bible to give as a gift to someone who is part of the watching world who gets interested in Jesus!

 

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Passion: Missional Fuel

Is it just me or does it seem like followers of Jesus are subtly expected to be devoid of passion?  There are times when those of us who are bent toward passion are told things like this: “tone it down,” “cool off,” and “just get over it already.”

But is this fair?  Is this good?  Is this healthy?

Isn’t their a place for passion in the life of a follower of Jesus?  Isn’t passion the exact thing we need to fuel our missional efforts?

In order to answer some of these questions let’s look at the life of Jesus in John 2.13-25.

Passion in Jesus’ Life

I’m writing this blog from a Starbucks.  I know, I know…how cliche!  But that’s just the truth.  And while sitting here quietly drinking my venti black coffee, I heard a man talking about Jesus.  He referred to Jesus like this: “A short, long-haired, big-nosed, bearded, contemplative hippy.”

Does this description sound familiar to you at all?  It certainly does to me.  I grew up in a church culture which was influenced by the Jesus Movement of the 1970s.  And the picture of Jesus advanced by the Jesus Movement was that of a hippy religious leader who said some esoteric truths from time to time.

But where’s the passion?  When I think of a hippy, passion is one of the last words that comes to mind (unless, of course, by passion “free love” is meant!).  But the kind of burning in the gut that causes one to take strong and even unpopular stands usually doesn’t mesh well with the Jesus-is-a-hippy idea.

However, even a surface reading of Jesus’ life will show something different than the Jesus Movement’s caricature.  In the Gospels we meet a Jesus bubbling over with passion.

Passion in John 2

John 2.13-25 is one of the best places to see Jesus’ passion.  In this section of John’s Gospel we see Jesus going to Jerusalem for Passover.  When he gets to the temple, the house of God, he finds the courts full of people selling animals to be sacrificed and money-changers who are exchanging Rome’s coins for money acceptable at the temple.

This sight makes Jesus angry.  John doesn’t use the word “angry” in this passage, but it seems pretty clear.  Why else would Jesus make a whip (John 2.15)?  This wasn’t just some passing frustration.  He saw something that angered him and he spent the time to make a whip.  That’s passion that was oozing out of Jesus’ pores!

So Jesus goes back and drives the animals out of the temple courts and overturns the money-changers’ tables.  He then says to them, “Get all your stuff, and haul it out of here! Stop making My Father’s house a place for your own profit!” (The Voice translation).

Then some people who were observing Jesus’ behavior became confused and probably frustrated.  They have a verbal exchange in which Jesus foreshadows his death and resurrection.

But what made Jesus angry?  What ignited his passion?

The Cause of Jesus’ Passion

Jesus is obviously angry that people are turning the temple, a place in which people are supposed to be directed toward God, into a marketplace.

There’s has been much written about this passage in John 2, and many scholars, pastors, and authors point to the fact that the animal sellers and money-changers were likely engaged in price-gouging.

Think about it.  It’s Passover time and people from all over the region are coming to Jerusalem to worship.  A central part of that worship is animal sacrifice (sorry PETA!).  So the demand for animals is really high and the supply is controlled by the sellers.  What does that equal?  Extraordinarily high prices.

The same factors likely influenced the money-changers.  They knew they could adjust the rates of exchange in their own favor and no one could do anything about it.  The temple only accepted a certain kind of money, so, again, the demand is high and the supply is controlled.  Their rates likely skyrocketed!

And while some of the people who came to the temple could probably afford the ridiculous prices since they were wealthy, most people couldn’t.  Most people had to save all year in order to attend a festival in Jerusalem like Passover.  So, much like modern-day payday loan businesses, it was the poor who were taken advantage of the most by these folks in John 2.

Here’s my contention: Jesus passion in this passage was fueled by his anger that a place intended to point people to God was overrun by people trying to make a profit on backs of the poor.

Passion Is Okay

After Jesus goes on his rampage in the temple, his disciples remember Psalm 69.9 “Zeal for you [God’s] house will consume me.”  His disciples understand what Jesus is up to, at least in part.  I’m sure they were confused by his comments about “destroying this temple” but they understood his passion for the sanctity of the temple.  In fact, that was likely a common conception of how the messiah, the promised Jewish savior, would behave.

So Jesus’ passion lined up with his disciples’ understanding of Scripture.  And it made sense in it’s context, specifically regarding the taking advantage of the poor through price-gouging.  In other words, Jesus’ passion was okay.  It was acceptable.  It was viewed by some (but not all) as righteous and justified.

Therefore, our passions can be okay too.

What makes us angry?  If it’s something that is selfish at its core, then you should try to fight against it.  But if it’s something that is more akin to Jesus’ passion, then let it lead you.

And what was Jesus’ passion like?  It was concerned about God getting his due glory and about the poor being taken advantage of.

Are our passions ignited by these same sorts of things today?

This is just me — but I doubt that our anger over the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays!” fits this definition very well.  Neither does our anger at the fact that “that kind of person” is moving into our neighborhood or coming to our worship services.  And our passion about the style of worship we prefer certainly doesn’t fit that well either.

There are plenty of things in our world that do match up well with the passion of Jesus.  Here are a few: Concern that our churches point people to God and not to a generic American ideal; Passion for the proper and right treatment of the underprivileged and marginalized in our society; and Anger toward those who take advantage of the poor, especially if done under God’s banner.

But Passion Can Be Costly

Check this out: the Latin root for the word “passion” — passio — means “suffering.”

Friends, there’s a link between our passion and suffering.  Jesus highlighted it in this passage.  He predicted his death and ultimate resurrection.  This is why a story about the crucifixion of Jesus is typically entitled or labeled as a “Passion of Christ,” like the Mel Gibson movie.

So it should come as no surprise that when we let godly passion exude from us that suffering may be in our future.  People won’t always understand, just like some of the Jewish leaders in John 2 didn’t.

But passion that is from the Lord will lead true followers of Jesus to greater understanding, just as it did in John 2.  It will be focused on God and his glory and on preventing people from taking advantage of others.

And it will often lead to suffering.

Jesus never promised to lead us into the easy life.  That’s the American Dream!  Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28.20) as we follow him, where ever that might lead.

 

What are you passionate about?  Does it line up with Jesus’ passion that we see in John 2?  Will you fan the flame of your passion even if it leads to suffering?  Will you let righteous passion fuel your missional efforts?

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Trust: John 2.1-12

Jesus’ first miraculous sign in John is one of my favorite stories in all of the Gospels!  In fact, I love it so much that I plan on blogging about it from several different angles over the next few days.

And to get things started I want to look at this story from Mary’s perspective.  Spoiler alert — Mary’s perspective is defined by one word: trust.

 

Mary’s Perspective

The story of Jesus turning water into wine has been interesting to me for decades.  When I was younger, I was surprised to learn that Jesus’ first miracle in John involved him creating wine because the religious context I grew up in taught that all alcoholic drinks were to be avoided at all costs.

Later, while in college and seminary, the sociological background of this story began to intrigue me, specifically the elements of honor and shame that are part of this story.  And that’s right where I want to start, with the honor and shame system and how it impacted Mary.

So in the story what we see is that Jesus, his friends, and his mom attend a wedding.  This wedding was in the town of Cana, which is a neighbor city to Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown.  And one of the first details that we learn about this wedding is that the wine was gone.

Why is this detail important?  Why would John include it?  For one main reason, at least in my estimation: the wine running out brought shame on the family organizing the wedding.

Since I didn’t grow up in an honor/shame culture, this part of the story is hard for me to understand.  So maybe an analogy would help…

Imagine that you were invited to a wedding.  When you arrive at the venue, everyone is standing outside because the venue has been double-booked!  Everyone is in their best clothes.  The bride and groom are ready to go.  But the family who booked the venue is embarrassed and frustrated.

These feelings are similar to what the family in this story would feel if they were made aware of the problem of the wine running out.

And who is the person to step in and prevent this shame from coming to fruition?

Mary.

And who does Mary turn to in this time of need?

Jesus.

Mary trusts Jesus.  Maybe she remembers what she was told about Jesus when she was pregnant (Luke 1.26-38).  Maybe Joseph has passed away, as is commonly believed, and Jesus was her nearest male relative to whom she could turn, which was the societal norm of the day.

 

Trust in Jesus

Whatever the case, Mary trusted Jesus.  She asked him for help.

And despite Jesus’ strange response, which we’ll talk about in a future blog, Mary tells other people to do whatever Jesus says.

So Mary’s trust doesn’t just stay private, she shares it with others.

Friends, whom or what do we trust?  Many of us would say that we trust Jesus, but our actions sometimes say otherwise.

From our obsession with our stuff, it could be said that we trust our possessions.

From our constant pursuit of more things, it could be said that we trust in our ability to consume.

From our protection of our autonomy, it could be said that we trust ourselves first.

From our focus on our families to the detriment of those in need around us, it could be said that we trust our families.

This list could go on and on.

The truth is that we seem to be willing to trust just about anything and anyone except Jesus.  How do we know this?  Because we aren’t doing a great job of following Jesus.  If we trusted him, we would follow him more closely.

If we trusted Jesus, we would be centered on his mission to make disciples and bring about justice for those most in need.

If we trusted Jesus, we would spend less time judging the sin of others and more time loving them.

If we trusted Jesus, we would be like Mary, letting our trust move from being private to becoming public.

And if we trusted Jesus, we would demonstrate less and less that we trust other things and people more than him.

 

What do you think about Mary’s trust in John 2.1-12?  And how do you think that we, as followers of Jesus, could demonstrate our trust in him more and more?  Let me know in the comments below.

 

Known by Jesus: John 1.43-51

One of my favorite passages in all of the Bible is Philippians 3.10-11: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

Maybe I like this passage because I’ve spent much of my life trying to get to know Jesus.  I’ve read about him.  I’ve meditated on his words and on the words of others who have written about him.  I’ve sung about him.  I’ve talked about him.  And I’ve written about him a lot.

But even more meaningful is what we see in John 1.43-51 — people are known by Jesus.  We may want to know him, which is important.  But he already knows us.  We are known by Jesus.

Let’s unpack this…

 

Context

As I wrote about earlier, Jesus just called his first disciples.  He asked them to follow him and they did, thanks to the witness of John the Baptist and their families.

But what I didn’t write about was a miraculous moment between Jesus and Peter.  Here’s what it looked like:

Andrew meets Jesus and is enamored.  He goes to tell his brother Simon.  When Jesus meets Simon he identifies him without being told anything about him.  Jesus simply looked at him and said “You are Simon, son of John.”

Did you catch it?  Simon, who Jesus says will be called Peter, was known by Jesus before they ever met face to face.  That’s pretty cool, right?

It gets better, just wait.

 

Known by Jesus: Nathaniel

Jesus is so cool in this passage!

In verse 43, Jesus finds Philip and invites him to follow him.  Philip apparently said yes and wanted to let his brother, Nathaniel, know too.  So, Philip told Nathaniel that the long-awaited Messiah has come and that he’s from Nazareth.

Nathaniel’s first response was prejudiced and shallow: “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?”  But instead of correcting him, Philip does something profound.  He simply says come and see for yourself.  I love this: when people are making judgments about Jesus that are annoying and naive, we can just invite them to meet the real Jesus.

So Philip and Nathaniel go to meet Jesus and as they are approaching Jesus he says to Nathaniel that he’s a good, upstanding guy.  Nathaniel is shocked and says “How do you know me?”

Jesus’ response in verse 48 is enigmatic: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  What’s so special about this?  There are at least two things:

  1. Jesus is saying that he knew Nathaniel before Philip had even told Nathaniel about him.
  2. There’s also something about the fig tree here.  In the Old Testament fig trees sometimes refer to home and in some rabbinic sources they are seen as places of mediation (DA Carson, The Gospel according to John, 161).  So, Jesus is saying that he knew Nathaniel when he was in the privacy of his own home, or he’s saying that he knew Nathaniel when he was in the midst of praying, or both.

Either way, what Jesus said really impacted Nathaniel.  His response in verse 49 goes like this: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”  He was saying that he was all in!  Then Jesus responds, “You ain’t seen anything yet!”

 

Conclusion

The most amazing thing about this story is that Nathaniel was known by Jesus.  And this fact blew Nathaniel away!  But how was Nathaniel known by Jesus?  In John’s Gospel, we don’t know yet for sure.  But in the opening verses of John we read that the Word, who is Jesus, has always been around, even at the very beginning.  Thus, Nathaniel was known by Jesus from the beginning.  There was never a time when he wasn’t known by Jesus.  That’s really pretty cool!

Psychologists tell us that one of our basic human needs is to be known.  And we all know what it feels like to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t really care to know us.  It hurts and it feels exploitative.

But the truth is that each and every one of us is known by God and we have been known by him from the foundations of the universe.

But that can be scary.

Think about it: If God has always known me, then he has always known all my problems, my failures, my hatreds, my prejudices, my mistakes, etc.  How could he love me if he has always known me?  I mean, come on, I have a hard time loving myself!

But that’s the miracle of the good news of Jesus and his kingdom; God has always known us and he loves us anyway.  Romans 5.8 is helpful to memorize: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Let’s put that in plain English: We are all known by God, and yet he loves us anyway.  Despite our mistakes and sinfulness, Jesus came for us.  We are known by God and he still desires so passionately to be with us that he went to the greatest lengths possible!

Friends, we have two responses: 1) Accept and live into the love that God so graciously lavishes upon us, even though we don’t deserve it; and 2) Share that love with others, because to do otherwise would be incredibly, incredibly selfish.

 

What do you think?  What does it feel like to be known by Jesus?  Let me know in the comments below!

Disciple-Making: John 1.35-42

The term “disciple-making” can be very, very intimidating…even off-putting.  Here’s an example:

I was giving a talk recently on the topic of disciple-making when someone in the audience said that the disciple-making language didn’t feel very inviting to people who have yet to follow Jesus and is a big turn off to some followers of Jesus.  My response wasn’t as kind as it could have been.  I said something like this: “Well, that’s because for many, many generations we, the Church, have been totally okay with people not actually following Jesus.”  I think my comment came across quite a bit harsher than I intended but I stand by the sentiment.  And I do so because of passages like John 1.35-42.

 

 

Context for the First Example of Disciple-Making

So what is going on in this scene?  Where are we in the story that John is telling?  In John 1.19-34 John writes about John the Baptist.  John the Baptist really plays one role in the story to this point: to point to Jesus, to testify (as I have written about before).  And since John the Baptist was visible, popular, and seemingly charismatic, people listened to him, including the two disciples mentioned in John 1.35.

Though I’ve made this point before, it worth repeating that testifying, or pointing people to Jesus, is one of our chief jobs as followers of Jesus.  If Jesus has truly transformed our lives, and if all that the Bible says about him is true, and if he has set us on paths of participation in God’s will on this earth, then how could we not point to Jesus as often as possible?!?

This is exactly what John the Baptist does.  He points to Jesus, which the people within his circle of influence see and hear.  We could stand to learn a thing or two about disciple-making from him!

 

Disciple-Making: Four Biblical Principles

The story in John 1.35-42 is very straightforward.  John the Baptist points out Jesus.  Two of his followers start following Jesus.  Jesus turns to them and has a brief conversation, which turns into a longer one at the place where Jesus was staying.  One of these two first followers, Andrew, told his brother, Simon, about Jesus the next day.  When Jesus and Simon met, Jesus tells Simon that he’ll be called Peter.  That’s it.  But there are four important principles to be found in there that I want to tease out below:

  1. People Are Ready to Follow Jesus:  Sure, not everyone.  But lots of people are ready.  Did you see how fast the first two followers of Jesus began to be his disciples when they met Jesus?  It was immediate.  Now we shouldn’t expect this response every time we engage in disciple-making.  But sometimes it happens this way.  Other times we have to be John the Baptist, spending time with folks, testifying about Jesus.  Then, when the time is right, we point directly to Jesus and they will be drawn to him!
  2. Our Intentions Matter: Did you notice Jesus’ question to his first two followers?  He said, “What do you want?”  This question is important for many reasons, but here’s an interesting one: these are the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John.  This fact gives them great weight.  To me they reverberate down through the ages and confront each of us who wants to follow Jesus — what do we want?  Are we in it for “fire insurance,” business contacts, to appease a loved one, or because we’ve always done church?  Or do we actually want to follow Jesus as our Rabbi?  The word “rabbi” literally means “my great one” and figuratively means “teacher.”  Are we ready to submit to and learn from Jesus?  If that’s not why we want to follow him, we may need to do some re-evaluation!
  3. We Can’t Follow Jesus by Standing Still:  When the first two followers of Jesus ask him where he is staying, he says, “Come and you’ll see.”  Then, later, Andrew told Peter about Jesus and “brought him to Jesus.”  There’s movement in these phrases.  Following Jesus isn’t something that can be done by idly waiting, biding time until the Second Coming, or letting others do all the work.  No!  Following Jesus involves – GASP! – following!  This is an action word, a word dripping with movement.
  4. A “Made” Disciple Is Involved in Disciple-Making:  In this passage Andrew meets Jesus, then immediately wants his brother to know about Jesus too.  Here’s how DA Carson described it in his commentary on John: “The first thing Andrew did…was to find his brother and announce, We have found the Messiah.  He thus became the first in a long line of successors who have discovered that the most common and effective Christian testimony is the private witness of friend to friend, brother to brother” (155).  In other words, Andrew went about disciple-making just as had happened to him — he shared with someone else.  An integral part of following Jesus means speaking and embodying the good news in our lives where we work, live, and play.  This isn’t optional.

 

So, there are four disciple-making principles from this passage.  What do you think?  Did I miss any other important points?  Let me know in the comments below!