Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jesus: Present or Absent?

Did Jesus contradict himself? In Matthew 28:20 he says "I'll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age." Then in Acts 1:9, Luke records that "After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him."

How could he keep his promise to be with them "day after day after day" but no longer be visible? Acts 1:2 says he was with them visibly "until the day he was taken up to heaven" but that was "after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit." Now, that's interesting. He was visibly with them, teaching, but he taught through the Holy Spirit. Why?

Two reasons, I think. First, Luke records the Holy Spirit's work many times in the book of Acts, so he notes here that Jesus taught, but not just by his own words but "through the Holy Spirit." Was this something they could somehow sense? It's possible, but not likely -- we don't see any visible or audible signs of the Spirit until Acts 2:2-4. Instead, it's probably a note that the Spirit was there, already working to prepare them for what was shortly to follow.

Second, the Holy Spirit continued to teach and lead the apostles on through the New Testament record, both in Acts and in the epistles. But let's remember that God is one (Mark 12:29) not three separate beings who happen to be united. The Spirit is called "the Spirit of Christ" in Romans 8:9 and "the mind of Christ" in 1 Cor. 2:16. So the risen Son of God, Jesus, continued to be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit. And he was teaching them at this point in the same way -- not just with his audible words and his visible facial expression and gestures, but in the work of the Spirit.

How about us, today? Since we haven't seen him with our physical eyes, we 'see' Jesus through the eyes of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 2:10 says "But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets."

So Jesus is with us, "day by day by day" through the Spirit. That means a large part of being his disciples is seeing him, hearing him and following him through the Spirit. How do you do that? Something called the Spiritual Disciplines, (also called the Holy Habits) which help us hear and follow. We'll keep talking about those.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Change of Heart

"Okay, Pastor Mark, you're saying that I need to pray that other people will become aware of the salvation God has given them through Jesus, so their lives will be blessed and on top of that live in God's presence forever. Not a bad idea, I guess, but I don't even like my neighbors, and I'm really glad the noisy one down the street moved away. And some of my relatives -- oh, the stories I could tell you! So I don't even want to pray for them."

Shoot, you think that's unique to you? Hardly. But if God felt like that, would he have loved you? Hmmm...I know he wouldn't have loved me. But his Son (the perfect expression of God's love to us) came to die in our place, before we made a move -- see my old favorite, Romans 5:8.

God's purpose and passion is for everyone to know him face to face, forever. He wants that to be our passion too. Paul wrote to Timothy: "I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth." Paul defines that truth in verses 5 and 6: "For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. This is the message God gave to the world at just the right time."

But, if you really don't feel like it, perhaps the first prayer is for a changed heart -- to learn to feel like it. Actually, it's to learn to feel like God feels, in the words of Jesus himself: "But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike." (Matthew 5:44-45).

In short, though you may not love your neighbors, Jesus does. If you don't love your neighbors, you need his love, not yours, to flow through you.

Yep, Jesus commanded us to pray for others. But sometimes we have to tell God, paraphrasing the man who wanted to believe and wasn't sure how (Mark 9:24) “I do love, but help me overcome my un-loving!”

God will answer that prayer
. Try it for a few months and let me know what happens.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pray without Ceasing

Some friends of mine say that nobody comes to salvation through Jesus Christ without prayers -- lots and lots of prayers -- being sent up on their behalf. Is that true?

Well, Jesus has already done all the heavy lifting for us. We read in Hebrews 2:9 that "by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone." And in 1 Tim. 2:6, we see that Jesus "gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone." So that part is done. And how do we, and others, come to know this amazing grace? Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of "sin, righteousness and judgment."

So God is perfectly capable of doing his work without our help. But how does he want us to feel and act toward our neighbors who may not know him yet? Do our prayers matter? In what way?

Jesus said in Matthew 5:44 "But I say, love [even] your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!" So loving our neighbors means praying for them. Even the guy who plays his music too loudly, or runs over our geraniums with his Jeep. How do we pray -- that they will reform, in order for us to be more comfortable? Rather, that they will come to know the love of God, who through his Son's death and resurrection has already brought them from death to life.

Jesus' command about love gave prayer as the first example of how to love someone. In prayer, we learn to care. When I'm praying for someone else's salvation and peace, for his or her sole benefit,
that prayer will change me, helping me to care for that neighbor as God already does. I'll be more likely to respond lovingly -- as God, through Jesus, already has responded -- in any interaction. Earnest, intentional prayer for them to know Christ's love will make me more likely to be the right example and, if it comes up, to give them the right words also. And to be able to thank God, with genuine love for them, when they accept the love he is offering them. Without that prayer, God's work will still be done for them -- but less of it will be done in me.

Jesus told us to pray for our neighbors. Somebody prayed
(maybe for years) for you to come to know salvation in Christ. Who are you going to pray for today? This week? This year? Without ceasing? --And how will all that prayer change you?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why are you here?

Last week at summer camp,, one of my friends got to reflecting on life's purpose. I encouraged him to think what he wanted on his gravestone, because that's the last word we get.

How about you? What is your purpose in life? Do you know what God says about it? I find my purpose summarized in 2 Cor. 5:15 -- "He [Jesus Christ] died for all, so that those who live would not live to please themselves. But they should live to please him who gave his life for them and rose again from death." This is part of the Great Reversal talked about many times in scripture: that in Jesus, God has both offered and accepted a perfect human life to replace my sinful (even with the best of intentions) humanity. In Jesus, I have (in effect) died, so I don't have the death penalty for my sins hanging over me: "We are certain that if one person died for everyone else, then all of us have died" (2 Cor 5:14) In Jesus, God has offered me eternal life, so instead of just a temporary reality ending in death, I get to live with him forever in the ultimate reality of his presence.

So, what do I do in the meantime? God answers me through Paul, in that same chapter 5, verses 18 to 20: "And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, 'Come back to God!' "

My job is to speak on behalf of Jesus Christ in saying "Come back to the Father of all things and live with him forever." My calling is to show how God has taken care of the debt caused by our sin and fallenness by his Son, Jesus Christ, and that he welcomes all people into his eternal home. My joy is to talk about the unbelieveable-yet-true love God has offered us, and to show that love to everyone I meet, regardless how unloveable they are, because that is the same love God has shown to me.

Well, it's not just me. Every Christian gets this privilege. Every one of us gets to show and to tell somebody else about this outrageous offer God has made us. Who do you know that needs to hear about this news? How might you tell them about it? Would you use a story, or a song, or a picture, or modeling clay, or what? And if you're worried about whether it will work, are you willing to give it a shot anyway, and let God work out the results? He's really good at that -- after all, it worked for you!

What will your gravestone say? For that matter, what does your Facebook say right now? Or your face? No sense waiting until it's all over to say it...