There’s no justice without Jesus

My old friend and I were talking about justice the other day, on our way to our Doing Theology event about justice. He was telling me how he respected a famous organization called Doctors Without Borders. He told me one of the reasons he loved them was because they were committed to only doing good work, and not just talking about it. Furthermore, they did not connect proselytizing with their work, and were forbidden to do so. He thought keeping Jesus out of this compassion work made sense. Sometimes it seems like compassion efforts and good will are a dangling carrot, so long as the people we are serving accept Jesus as their personal savior. I haven’t heard too many stories like that, and I think usually it is hyperbolic, but people certainly have that thought and that feeling.

I suppose if all we want is for people to utter a simple profession of faith before we serve them, that can seem a little manipulative. I’m not sure that such a dichotomy exists. I can’t seem to divorce justice and Jesus. And I wonder, is justice, true justice, really possible without Him? I think many hold that kind of view.

But I also contend that Jesus isn’t really possible without justice. Though there are many takes on what justice means, especially in the postmodern era, I think that real justice has to do with God reconciling himself with us. It has to do with salvation, and the endless hope and unconditional love of Jesus. Some would say that Jesus favored mercy to justice when he died for us, but I’d say there was nothing more just than his free and radical distribution of grace and forgiveness on us. There is enough love to go around—to us, it’s a free gift. We can receive it and share it. In that receptive and sharing, I think true justice can be achieved. And I think our acts of justice can lead people to Jesus. So, whether I profess his name with my mouth or with my actions, it will be professed I believe.

I think that’s why in Circle of Hope, we leave no stone unturned when it comes to helping people follow Jesus. Our compassion teams are leading us into ventures in the name of Christ. And so our cells and Sunday meetings. One of the reasons that our faith can be so all-encompassing is because the Spirit lives within us and we are the Body of Christ. We can’t divorce justice from Jesus, because we can’t, as Christians, divorce ourselves from Him.

So whether I profess his name with my voice or my story, in my being, in my body, he will be professed. The fact that someone can tell me not to talk about him, is almost like telling me not to live. Not because I can’t shut up about Jesus, but because for me to live is Christ! He is in my body, he is in my actions, my thoughts and my heart. I love him with all of those things, and O so I hope you will see him in all I do. And if you do not, I have something from which to repent.

I suppose that is something we all have to wonder about. If not in my actions am I representing Jesus, then what am I representing? Myself? My ego? My own good feelings? Socially constructed morality? Modernistic imposition? Political philosophy? There are many things that we consciously and unconsciously represent. Even saying that we should not be evangelistic is a kind of evangelism in itself.

When the religious leaders tell Jesus that his disciples are being too loud, he tells them that if they do keep quiet, the rocks will cry out. If Christians are silent, or are not doing the good work of Jesus, someone else will. I think God employs the willing, not the entitled. So, it is as much our responsible to act on Jesus’ behalf but to speak for him too. We are his hands and feet, but his ears and his mouth too.

I’m a fan of Doctors Without Borders

God is not far off from us and I think if we look for him, we may find him, too. I personally respect the work that NGOs like I’m a fan of Doctors Without BordersDoctors Without Borders do, and I think Christ’s love can be known through their service even if they are silent about it. I’m thankful for all of the good work that humans do together, and I for one, will name Jesus and the Holy Spirit as responsible for all the good in the world.

So I don’t think you need to perform some great act of justice to represent Jesus, your little act of service and kindness goes a lot way to proclaiming Jesus name. You may want to name him with your voice while you do it, maybe the Spirit will do the heavy lifting.

Paul in Athens teaches us how to bring the Gospel into the present

The characters in Acts are changing the world. Paul and his comrades are trying to soften stiff-necked, hardheaded unchanging people. Paul is bringing a revolution to the Jewish faith and opening up the gates of Christianity. But on the other side are the Gentile traditions that are very different their approach to the world philosophically.

That latter group is why Acts 17 is so important to church planters, I think. It contains amazing interaction that Paul has with the Athenian people. They are a long way from Kansas, if you know what I mean, and the arguments about the Old Testament law that Paul and his comrades are having up until this point, are a little less relevant when he is addressing Athens.

You can read the whole passage here. I want to distill some lessons from Paul’s leadership for us to use in our current context.

1. Paul allows himself to get angry about the sin and evil around him. Paul is waiting for his comrades in Athens and he is walking around this intellectual city full of idolatrous items. Athens is a free from the Roman Empire who respects it because of its storied history; it is a museum of Greek culture, and so Paul is noticing a lot about it. And he is getting angry about its godlessness; the word Luke uses to describe Paul’s anger is the same word that’s used to describe God’s anger in the Old Testament too. Paul engages in debate with his Jewish contemporaries, which is typical for him. His anger is being channeled. He knows he’s angry and he uses it. I wonder how angry we are about the sin around us—most of the time, I think we just avoid it or try to develop indifference. We unfriend or unfollow on Facebook.

2. Paul knows his audience’s philosophies. While he’s waiting he also debated in public to whomever was listening. He interacted with two philosophical groups, which Luke names: Stoics and Epicureans. I think it’s important to understand those two philosophies, not just so we understand the passage and why Paul says what he says, but so that we take the time to the research about contemporary philosophies that we may need to address as we do our part in the family business.

The Epicureans

  • Followed Epicurus and they had little “faith,” even in the Greek sense. They didn’t care about gods of any kind—they were too removed to be noteworthy.
  • One Greek thinker summarized their thought this way, “Nothing to fear in God, nothing to feel in death, Good can be attained, evil can be endured.”

The Stoics:

  • They are following Zeno—he would teach from Stoa Poikile.
  • These people were pantheists—believing in the unity of the divine and the earthly. Gods are the “soul” and we are the “body,” but we make up one being.
  • Thought gods were made of the material.
  • As a result, reason and the state were important themes in their thinking. Obedience and self-sufficiency were cornerstones.

Paul knows this about his audience and he can craft a speech that is directed toward their proclivities. He uses strictly Hellenistic Jewish and Greek philosophy to come up with his argument. In other words, he is using the culture that’s around him to declare the basic truth of Christianity. Further, Paul is following a typical Greek form of speech too. He is speaking to his audience using images they understand and a form of speech that the people would get too.

3. Paul uses cultural artifacts to make his point. He uses an inscription he sees to begin that point—that is the central point of the speech and how he makes a connection. He tells them he sees an inscription that says, “to an unknown God.” And he is about to tell them who that God is. The point is made clear: he is relating to the culture and trying to find God in it or at least an opportunity to God to begin planting something.

Paul then begins to describe this God. He describes him first as creator. He made the world and everything in it, and he is the life giver. He is agreeing with the Epicureans that God it he creator, but he is making him personal, undoing their thought that he is too distant to matter, and moreover, he is showing the Stoics that God is separate from us, too, and is not made of crude matter. God supplies our meaning and life.

4. Paul is inclusive, but incisive. Truthful and loving. Paul invites his audience to look for this God with him. And he assures them that God is not far off (maybe because Jesus and his Spirit are right with Paul!) and if they search they may well “grope” him, too. Even if they are blind and are mindlessly meandering, they may still interact with God. Paul continues his flirtation with the philosophy of the day when he uses language like “In him we live and move and have our being,” and he quotes contemporary philosophers too.

The truth of the message is still in tact: creation, being, judgment, repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection. Moreover, Paul doesn’t hesitate to undo the philosophies that he needs to, but he does it with care and while convincing the people that they are already on their way there. He doesn’t just let the entire faith be socially constructed. He doesn’t concede to pressure from the world around him/

5. Paul knows this work takes time. If you keep reading, you will note that some people came to faith in Athens. Paul didn’t undo all of the philosophy that day, but he did his part in the incremental work. These things take time and Paul is OK with that.

Circle of Hope is trying to do its part in that kind of adaptation. Here’s one of my favorite sayings from our collection about this: Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.”

Paul does an amazing job of bridging that gap. He isn’t particularly rude to his audience, he finds artifacts that they can relate to, he uses their own philosophy to include them in the mission, and then he tells them that God is not that far off. We are the people that can show the world the whole cloth of Christ. Where are we seeing Jesus in the world and its philosophies? What good can we find? What can be a good starting place for a conversation?

But that also means that we need to bring the Gospel into the current era. Another proverb: Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.

Paul is a changer and a mover. He is flexible with the Gospel and he reserves his harshest words for those who are not.

Acts is all about how God changes us and grows us for his cause. If we are stuck on our old tradition and can’t become flexible for Christ’s sake, we may just become marginalized people in a changing culture and world. This isn’t about making up a new truth that’s philosophically en vogue, it’s not about constructing reality, but it’s about being flexible enough to bring Jesus to a new generation.

In Paul’s case it was Athenians, who is it in our case? Who do we need to present the gospel to with great flexibility? How we can help include them instead of just defending ourselves?

Jurassic World shows us that even saying nothing is saying something

(This post has spoilers–but I tend to agree with A.O. Scott on the subject.)

Well, Jurassic World was an awesome spectacle! And apparently that’s not an unpopular opinion as the summer blockbuster has enjoyed earning over $400 million at the box office. When it opened a few weeks ago, it beat the record for highest-grossing weekend of all time.

When a movie is that successful, I have to stop and ponder how it is influencing the legion of fans that are watching it. There’s something to be said about how impressive the flick is visually, but what else is it?

I went into to Jurassic World with high hopes. When I watched the trailer with the mosasaurs gobbling up that great white shark, I knew I had to see it. The original movie was captivating to me as a lad—the first PG-13 movie I ever watched—and I remember the moral of the story: leave creation up to the Creator. When humans start trying to be God, trouble finds them. In this case, when people starting trying to genetic engineer extinct species of dinosaurs and make a profit, things got a little out of control. Great lesson—so what’s the point of a sequel? What else could it tell us?

Honestly, it was superficially brilliant, but I was disappointed in the lack of substance of the film. Not just because the characters, aside from Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), are one-dimensional, but because the plot itself seem to unravel as quickly as the amusement park did.

The basic premise: The park is experiencing increasingly high operating costs. As a result of this,  investors are pressuring the park to come up with an even greater attration. Enter Indominus rex the genetically engineered dinosaur that is based off of T-rex, but with a bunch of undisclosed animals mixed in. This ferocious, intelligent dinosaur is bigger and greater than the park can handle. When this super dinosaur escapes, the heroes have to figure out a way to regain control of their park.

Philosophically, the filmmakers were trying to create a conflict between Owen, a velociraptor trainer who is committed to “mutual respect” between him and the animals, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Masrani (Irrfan Khan) who represent the financial hunger of the park, and Vic (Vincent D’Onofrio), who sees nothing but militaristic opportunity in the dinosaurs. So the moral of the story seems to be that an interdependent relationship is better than a capitalist interest and militaristic opportunity. I suppose that is nice enough, except when it’s not.
That whole premise unravels at the end, as audience is treated to a display of outrageous, albiet totally cool, dinosaur fighting. The movie didn’t have an explicit moral that I could discern, but even without one, what else is it teaching us? Here are three myths that I think the film is perpetuating, that I think Jesus undoes.

  • Making money is what counts. Even though the dinosaur-making amusement park predictably falls apart. The entire trouble of the park occurs because of an obsession for more and more. That point is well deconstructed in the movie, but in a meta-sense, the production of the film itself doesn’t do anything to undo that myth. Here we are, 22 years after the original, watching the same movie and spending at least twice what we originally did to watch it. (See above for its box office total.) Jesus us a different narrative: the last shall be first, and the first last. In the Kingdom of God, making disciples is what counts. Those humble servants of God care more about his glory than their pocketbooks.
  • With enough individual effort, we’ll get it right. The movie is a direct sequel to the original, and even pays homage to it (one person is wearing a retro Jurassic Park T-shirt), and some of the characters stumble into a storage area of the old park. They still have the evidence of the deadly park that preceded this one, but they still haven’t learned. This time it will be different they seem to think. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The reason you’re failing is because you aren’t putting in enough effort. But that isn’t true, is it? We often fall into the same traps of sin and patterns of behavior no matter how earnest we are. We need community, we need a body, we need accountability. We can’t just go it alone, like Owen seems to. We need family (eventually Zach and Gray Mitchell, the distant brothers in the film, figure that out). More than just others, though, we need to disrupt our old system in order to change. The church can be the biggest disrupter of that “homeostasis.” We offer an alternative; our old habits are hard to shake on our own, but through the accountability and relationship with other believers who are saturated with the Spirit, I think we can move in the right direction.
  • Our problems may just solve themselves. None of the plans of the people—Masrani, Lowery, or Chris’—work in the end. They all fail. Most of the characters die in the film and even the best ideas don’t seem to work. In the end, it is dumb luck that seems to save the day and little that the characters intentionally did. “Life finds a way,” is Ian Malcom’s famous saying in the original movie, warning the park’s original creators of the folly of trying to control creation. Similarly, that same “life” solves the problems at the end of the day. The spectacle of four dinosaurs doing battle at the film’s conclusion appears satisfying, but still unrewarding. Some nameless force, in this case the power of “nature,” solves the wickedness that human perpetuate through it. But the reality is, things don’t get better on their own, and we don’t better either. Our problems aren’t solved. We need a savior. Even Owen wasn’t that savior for Jurassic World. But Jesus is that savior for us.

I’m not sure the creators of Jurassic World were as malicious as I may make them seem. I think they just wanted to make a sweet movie during the summer, and dinosaurs are a great subject! But I think when we have such a large platform from which to speak, it is our obligation to consider what messages, conscious or unconscious, we are delivering.

Let’s discern and think together for the rest of the summer as we consume the seemingly innocent action blockbusters. There may be more there than we can immediately see.

Discipleship leads to transcending our classifications

These days it seems like “Christian” is another word that we use to identify ourselves. We choose whether we are one or not, just like we choose any thing else about us. Either that, or society, our culture, and our upbringing tell us who we are, until we disagree with them. It seems like sociological identification, even for our faith, is just arbitrary as anything.

I want Jesus to supply me with who I am, as opposed to just being labeled and categorized, or coming it up with it on my own. I think we can sometimes make our faith, though, as much of an arbitrary label as the others. I suppose that’s why all the nominal Christians are finally coming out as nones now, huh?

I suppose we all felt that this week when Rachel Dolezal told us that she identified as black. She is the former president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. It is interesting how she made one choice about her identity and her parents made another, and the nation is arguing about who is right. And as arbitrary as worldly identities can be, they still carry immense power, as we learned Thursday when we witnessed a tragic hate crime in South Carolina. Some people simply don’t have the luxury of choosing how society frames them and then they are subject to whatever oppression comes with that imposed label.

I think Jesus can free us from that oppression. I think our Creator and our Savior is the one who gives us our true being. Even the process of making disciples is transformative for the disciple-maker.

I want us to look at three scenes in Acts 16. In each story, the process of discipleship changed the disciple-maker or the disciple. It transforms their identityit changes how they see and how the world does:

timothyTimothy—Jesus humbles us in order to include someone else.

In verses 1-5, Luke introduces us to Timothy, one of Paul’s most important helpers and companions. We know how important he is because of the letters later in the New Testament are addressed to him. Timothy is an interesting character to scholars because his mom is Jewish and his dad is a Greek. So they have what is the equivalent of an interracial marriage. Such a marriage is illegal according to Jewish Law, so we get the idea that Timothy did not grow up in a strict Jewish household.

But Paul circumcises him. This is an amazing moment. Some commentators are surprised because in Galatians Paul vehemently criticizes Judaizers who would require circumcision, but here he is endorsing it. But what is really happening is more than a theological difference. Paul is opposed to circumcision if it someone is saying it is necessary for salvation. Here, Paul circumcises Timothy (which, because he is Jewish, wouldn’t be totally unheard of) so that the Jewish people in the area would be open to hearing the Gospel. Paul is willing to put his disciple through more than the bare necessities for the sake of the mission. We see this in 1 Corinthians 9 when Paul tells us that he is all things to all people. His circumcision of Timothy is precisely that kind of accommodation.

Timothy humbles himself to include someone. Jesus offers us an opportunity for humility to. Timothy doesn’t need to do this for his own salvation, but he wants to remove a cultural distraction from his ministry to the Jewish people and so his circumcision helps him accomplish that task.

For us the question may be: what do I not need to do that might benefit me in including someone? What liberty, even a liberty that God grants me and his salvation gives you the freedom to participate in, would be better sacrificed for the sake of someone else? Where must I be humbled? How can I change in order to help change someone else?

Lydia—Jesus subverts the common order when he’s making a disciple. That act ripples into our “oikos.”lydia

In verses 11-15, Paul and Silas (and maybe Luke and Timothy) journey to Philippi, which is quite a cosmopolitan town, rich with precious resources, and Roman culture. It has more Latin inscriptions than Greek, and so it is like a little microcosm of Rome. It’s also important in the Bible because of the church that begins there and that Paul writes to from prison.

There aren’t many Jews in this town, and there doesn’t seem to be a place to pray. Paul and his crew go by the river outside and begin to pray. In the absence of a place of prayer, such a locale would do fine. So they are doing their thing and Lydia overhears them. She is a wealthy women and is enchanted by their words. The word for “listening” here suggests also that these interactions could have taken place numerous times, or perhaps for a long period of time. They build a relationship. Probably right there in the river, Paul baptizes her and her whole household. That term household in Greek is “oikos.” I only mention this to you because we also use that term in the Cell Plan. Lydia influences her household and they follow too. Lydia then invites them to stay with her, her servants, and her family.

She is a Jewish person, and according to historians, the Jewish order attracted many more women to the movement than men. This is noteworthy because women were not leaders in the Jewish community, by and large, and we think Lydia is the first Christian convert in all of Europe. She founds the Philippian church, which is a crucial town in the spread of Christianity in Europe.

Lydia is wealthy and has the capability to lead and influence her family. Paul takes advantage of that, but manages to subvert the common order by empowering a women. He elevates her status and the region changes.

The question then for us is what changes can we make that may ripple into our household. How can following Jesus empower others so that they can influence others?

bellatrixSlave girl in Phillipi—Jesus frees the enslaved.

Finally, in 16-19, Paul continues to travel to the place of prayer, and in this case they meet a slave girl who has a spirit in her. The word is “python” in Greek, so it was like something of a snake spirit, like Bellatrix here.

This girl is being exploited by her owners and making them a great deal of money. The other woman in this passage, Lydia, makes her own living and survives on it. This poor girl is exploited and apparently she is soothsaying. She was following Paul and Silas (maybe Timothy and Luke too). She keeps yelling about Paul and Silas being slaves to the Most High God—that is an unusual term, in fact, in the New Testament and she doesn’t mean Jesus when she says that. Similar words were used to describe Zeus, the leading Greek god, for example. She also says they are preaching “a” leading way of salvation, as opposed to “the” way. So she, and whatever is possessing her, is not clear about what exactly is happening. But she thinks they are slaves too.

This version says that Paul is getting annoyed—not with her, but rather the spirit within her. It doesn’t seem like the girl is being hostile. But Paul is disturbed, another word might be burdened deeply. Almost as a result of his irritation, he addressed the spirit to come out of her. And the spirit moves out of her.

Luke uses some clever wordplay right after this when he writes that at the moment the spirit left her, the owners hope of making a profit was gone too and so they freak out.

Paul crosses another major barrier here, culturally, in freeing a slave of her bondage, not just of the spirit but of the world. He frees the enslaved. Following Jesus frees people from their earthly bondage, of all sorts of oppressive things in order to liberate them. We are so stuck in the ways we are enslaved. We are enslaved to our identities, to our prejudices, to our mental illnesses and we have no way out but Jesus, in my opinion.

We have struggled for a long time in this nation over enslavement. It seems like our bondpeople aren’t even free yet. In the state the still waves the Confederate flag right at its Capitol Building, we just witnessed a racially-motivated shooting. We are deeply entrenched in racism in this country, like a python demon is possessing us. Can we acknowledge the demon that is over this nation? And then let’s start with praying, just like Paul did.

I think if we are going to have any hope of making disciples, we need to start with Timothy’s humility. We need to take advantage of the allies that we have, like Lydia, and include her radically in the mission. We need to see slavery and be emancipators, freeing people from their bondage and knowing that true freedom comes from Jesus and his Spirit.

I don’t want to over spiritualize this, but the Spirit of God is in each of these stories and without it, I’m not sure these barriers would be not just crossed, but overcome. Following Jesus leads to transformation that allows us to transcend our faith merely as a cultural byproduct. Though the people above didn’t have to get rid of the labels society gave them, they became transformed into new creations, knowing themselves first as Christians.

Is Facebook dead?

I was an early adopter of Facebook. My freshman year of college, when Sean Maxwell told me to get on it (back then it was called, I skeptically gave it a shot. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but it seemed to be the way that I could connect and remember the other Temple students I met. When I first joined you needed a .edu Email address to join as Zuckerberg was adding a variety of universities to his list. This was well before the contemporary newsfeed days. I remember when the feed was added to howls of protest—some people were saying, “Now people will be able to see everything I do!”facebook

It’s funny how quickly we adapted to it. For a while, it seemed like things kept changing, until our privacy was totally sucked dry, and we were participating in commercializing ourselves. When Facebook started selling the ability to promote our own posts, I suppose we all became advertisers.

I think at first one of the main reasons I used Facebook was to keep in touch with friends. Lately, I think it’s become a little corporatized, and subsequently pretty banal, and I’m losing interest in it. But it still seems  to be a great way to connect with new friends, forge new relationships, show a little love, even. I like using it to share things I love, articles I read, or to wish happy birthday to my friends. It has a use, I suppose. And it also shows me what the world is interested in. I’m not really opposed to social media, and I think it provides some great opportunities, but I still wonder and its effectiveness and its impact on its users (spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically).

After I tried to get some of my friends to share things that I care about (an invitation to our Sunday meeting, a blog post I wrote, or a videocast the pastors made), and got some resistance, I wondered: is this thing dead? Our whole Leadership Team pondered the same thing.

Why won’t someone share what I ask? Some said it felt “spammy.” Others thought it might fall on deaf ears. Still others thought that it was like throwing pearls before swine—competing with other loud voices, sponsored posts, and corporations. One person has even told me Circle of Hope and what we are doing is too “real” to just post on Facebook. It felt cheap to them.

I suppose I don’t disagree with all this. So I asked my own Facebook friends whether they thought Facebook was dead. Considering the rich discussion that followed, I’m not sure I can confidently say it is.

One person wrote, “Undoubtedly it is dead, I think. But the next question is, do we have anything to bring to life on Facebook?” I really do think some of the stuff Circle of Hope offers, our cells, our Sunday meetings, our teams, bring life not just to Facebook but to our whole metro.

Another: “Less dead than a primitive Email system.” Maybe Facebook is a better way to communicate than Email, after all! I use Email much more, but don’t necessarily have great results to report.

Someone else thought it was about as generic as an annual high school year book, with people saying things are deep as “never change,” and “have a great summer!”

Another friend noted how great it is to sign into other apps with it and numerous people thought it was a good way to stay in touch with their friends, or see pictures of babies and weddings.

One of our leaders noted that it was never alive, but still, billions are on it, so that is something, right?

I think one of our staff members did some great theology with it: “I have interpreted your question thusly: Facebook never had life to begin with. Facebook  has always been a kind of death. Life resides in God and creation, not computers. Life-giving relationship is face-to-face, spirit-to-spirit. It is in person. We are not ourselves on Facebook, we cultivate a brand of ideal self that isn’t our true self. Life cannot be had without in person contact. I’m thinking of 2 John 1:12: I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

With such an engaging discussion, one person said, “I feel God in this Facebook post.” Another, “I enjoyed this Facebook conversation with people I will probably never have an opportunity to sit down and chat with face-to-face.”

There are many lessons to be learned from this dialogue.

  • Facebook still seems to be an OK place to share thoughts and ideas, though nothing beats the person-to-person connection. Even John noted that, but still wrote his letter. In fact, the whole Bible isn’t person-to-person, but it’s relational nature is illuminated by the Spirit and by us. I think your Facebook post has that potential.
  • If we want to be influencers, it seems to be obvious to using such a popular tool. But it is prudent to discern what meaning it gives what we feed it. But with billions of people on it, it maybe shouldn’t be our sole means of communication, but why not be one of them? It seems like it is a good tool, but I think we should still discern its evil. Certainly, tools are not “objective,” they have their own meaning and so I think we always need to be discerning.
  • People use Facebook to stay connected. Making an extra connection with our friends, the people in our cells and congregations, and also people that may want to join in seems to be a good use. It shouldn’t be our only mechanism for connection, because it isn’t enough. And although you probably can’t be as real on Facebook as you can in real life, you can certainly project some narcissistic façade in real life, too. And you can show a little bit of genuineness anywhere.

Sometimes I think the fact that there are billions on Facebook, and every corporation ever, makes Facebook feel kind of like the NBA Finals: trying to make money off of us and tricking us that we are enjoying what’s happening. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it has lost the coolness that exclusive things can have, but I think lots of people are on Facebook, and so for now, I’ll stay on and use it for the Kingdom as best as I can.

Changing with Peter without just being grossed out

Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that changing our minds was a terrible thing. I remember a few years ago, I got to spend some time with an old high school friend of mine. Even though we were very close at some point in our live (I think I was even in his wedding), we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. I made some quip during a game of Settlers of Catan that he and I probably don’t disagree about anything. I was being hyperbolic, but I really didn’t think it was far from the truth. He then made a few comments about subjects that I hadn’t thought about in years, but that we nevertheless had a difference of opinion on. I think my whole approach to politics and theology has changed as I’ve grown older, but I was surprised that his thought was that we would just stay stuck in our old caverns of thought.

I suppose we kind of get tattooed with the things we say and believe and I think that can be a problem. You say one thing when you are sixteen and it never leaves you. That kind of stubbornness may seem like a virtue, but I’m not so sure. It’s very interesting to see what people will never live down—and these days, we witness a lot of it. Some newspaper quotes something someone said twenty years ago and they have to defend it as if they believe it now. I think there is value in changing your mind; in growing, in learning, in adapting even. Not only does that prospect seem impossible to some, it seems immoral!

We can be so rigid with how we think and process, and we can sometimes stay in our ruts in the name of consistency, or the Christianese word: steadfast. I don’t think our inflexibility is a virtue. I suppose if we change, we look weak, impressionable, stupid. I think, alternatively, we are humble, and we are flexible. Those are traits of a healthy person, in my opinion. If we can learn to be malleable and flexible, I think we develop resistance to breaking.

I actually think the less flexible we are, the more likely we are to make a radical change that throws out all of what we have learned, just so we can “be consistent.” So rather than maturing our young faith into adult faith, we just lose the whole thing. We never learn to change our mind, so we just throw it all away. We are rigid in our fundamentalism, not just of faith and Christianity, but of anything, and we rebel because we never learned to adapt.

The whole New Testament is filled with that kind of flexibility. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is a major agent of change in the book of Acts. Just last week, I was sharing about Saul’s conversion. He was a Christian-persecuting Jewish person, who became a Christian-discipling follower of Christ. The big change the faith movement needed to undergo was how to include people that were not part of the Jewish order. There were large cosmopolitan cities with that had Greek and Roman influence and many people who were far off from being Jewish culturally. So how could Christianity become more than just an off-shoot of Judaism? How could it include so-called foreigners?

Luke indicates a moment where the Gospel moves out in all directions to all people. It’s a great moment of change. And it is directed by the Holy Spirit, not just the good will of Peter or anyone else. Let’s start from chapter ten, verse nine.

Peter goes up to his roof, probably at an usual time (noon—the hottest part of the day.) Not surprisingly, it’s hot and he’s tired and so he falls into a trance. And then something like a large sheet falls from heaven.

The figurative sheet is filled with animals, from the earth, the sea, and the sky. The voice of God calls out to Peter and tells him to kill and eat, even the unclean animals (Leviticus 11 tells you more). Thinking it could be a test or a temptation, he emphatically refuses. He is really serious about not eating this food. To relate to a bit, imagine having a dream where a sheet of mice, rats, cockroaches, and other gross things comes down from heaven and having a voice tell you to eat them. Peter is more than just grossed out, he’s trying to follow the law that he has been loyal to for a long time. But God has made the food clean and it is time to eat. God declares the food clean and demonstrates such a radical cultural and legal change, for the purpose of inclusion. Luke tells us that Peter saw this vision three times, which reinforces the point that this vision came from God.

The changes here are not just for good, they are leading us into a new era. What else has God made unclean? Us! Through the work of Jesus Christ.

The next day they leave on their way to Caesarea, with some companions form the city of Joppa. Immediately when Cornelius sees Peter, he falls at his needs and begins to worship him. This may be an act of respect and paying homage than worship, but Peter’s response seems to indicate Cornelius is ready to worship Peter himself. A similar thing happens when Paul and Barnabus in Acts 14 are offered sacrifices and refused. Part of Gentile conversion is getting them not to worship people. Gentiles have to change too. Luke isn’t deifying anyone in Acts but Jesus, this emphasis is important culturally and otherwise.

Peter then explains the revelation that’s come from the Spirit. Previously, for a Jew to interact with a Gentile would make him ritually unclean. But now, it is not unclean. What we eat, who we relate to, and so on. The old laws are being undone and the world is changing. Although it may not be clear to us if the food laws are explicitly abolished, we at least know that the social norms are being undone.

This all sets the stage for Peter’s direct sermon of the Good News specifically to a Gentile audience. Something of a Gentile Pentecost occurs right after that.

The big thing that we are getting from this is the importance of the church being inclusive for the sake of mission, that for God changing to include people into the Gospel is of the utmost importance, so we are committed to breaking traditional barriers for people and the church.

How can we change to include the next person? Throughout history, it seems the church has changed quite a bit. Floating around Facebook this week was an article that wondered whether Christians and Evangelicals could co-exist (it was a response to one that wondered whether gay people and Christians could co-exist). The author’s main point was that Christians have changed over time—how we baptize, the role of Mary the mother of Jesus, even how we participate in the military.

Sometimes culture is the driving force behind why we change. Other times it is tradition. Sometimes we want to get back to our roots. Sometimes a leader’s style or preferences are why we change, too. But in my opinion, cultural pressure or preference just isn’t a good enough reason to change. We aren’t just changing to co-exist.

God changes us for the sake of inclusion, just like he changed Peter and the whole Jewish way of doing things. He wanted non-Jewish people to have a chance to follow up, and the Jewish customs were just a major road block. Many of the Jewish laws we now overlook have to do with health, good agriculture practice, or even making sure that the Jews weren’t participating in pagan rituals. Thousands of years later, the question for the Christian movement was whether or not these laws were important enough to exclude someone from following Jesus.

Peter had a vision from God that led him to change. He was confused and reticent. But he had faith to follow God into new territory. The core of his faith was not altered, just changed enough to include. I think we need to model the same discernment and courage when we are making changes too.

Did you know Circle of Hope is in its own process of adaptation and changing too? This whole year has marked a shift in how we do things. The Hub, which is comprised of our Director of Operations (Nate Hulfish), our Business Manager (Matt Abraham), Luke Bartolomeo as Communications Assistant—plus our four local site supervisors (Britani, Steve, Bethany, and Christina)—is changing in a lot of ways. They are giving us major administrative capacity. The fruit of that is the pastors getting “out there” more, making relationships, meeting people, and being on the ground more than in the office. Rachel Sensenig is beginning an incremental transition to pastoring Broad & Washington and we are praying together about who might plant the next church. Rod is transitioning into his new role too: Development Pastor.

The result of the pastors kind of getting out of the middle of everything, is the opportunity for our Leadership Team and Cell Leaders to continue to emerge. They are our main leaders who are leading us into what’s next. They are the Cell Leader Coordinators—who oversee our pastors, nurture and disciple our cell leaders. The Capacity Core Team, who works with the Hub, to further our operational capacity. The Compassion Core Team, which pulls us into new territory, helping our reputation in the region as compassion lovers. And the Church Planting Core are the apostles challenging us to change and grow even more.

But change is hard, and it is easy to let our anxiety lead us and get nervous about what will happen and stop it. The culture of your cell and Circle of Hope, the culture of your family, and even the culture of the church at large resists change. But sometimes even a minor disruption can lead to a large change that ripples out from us and changes the world.

So two questions we may want to ponder are 1) What is God leading me to change personally in my life? 2) How does God want Circle of Hope to change?