In the first scene we will look at this Sunday, we find Jesus and the disciples in a boat at sea during a terrible storm (Luke 8:22-25). The disciples, among them some who were skilled fishermen, knew it was very bad, life-threatening, and awoke Jesus, who was sleeping on deck, to come help bail. All hands on deck! Jesus wakes, then precedes to rebuke the storm, and all became calm. That is when Jesus asks the disciples, “Where is your faith?” (v. 25). Despite the peril of the storm, it was their imagination, however, that needed bailing, not the boat. They feared the storm; not Jesus. That was the problem. And, that was all about to change.
When Jesus asks the disciples, “Where is you faith?,” we tend to hear “You don’t have enough faith” as if Jesus’ question is about quantity. Quantity of faith. We assume Jesus is questioning the amount of faith that the disciples have—and by extension and application, questioning the amount of our faith. Of course, this “application” more typically is used as a proof text of someone else’s lack of faith (not mine!), “You don’t have enough faith” or “That Christian just doesn’t have enough faith.” The issue of “faith” here, however, is not about amount or size or depth or quantity. Of mine. Or even of yours. Nor is this question about “faith” meant for introspection. Naval gazing. In other words, the question is not about the private, individualized amount of faith that the disciples had . . . nor of yours and mine. The question was all about Him. About Jesus. Who is He?
This scene is the point in the story when the disciples were confronted (as you and I should be even now in reading the story) with who this wandering-teacher-Rabbi actually is: from the disciples’ point of view, Jesus entered the boat as a teacher, master, someone in the boat who can be called upon to grab a bucket and start bailing; then after the rebuke and the winds calm, the disciples fear he is more than a mere teacher. This is the scene that is before us.
Through how he has crafted his narrative, Luke has given a whole other referent concerning “faith.” The disciple's faith. My faith. And, your faith. There are three hints that allow us to infer that Jesus is more concerned about who we believe Jesus is. First, we have the wider context. Earlier we encountered two scenes where Jesus praised someone’s faith: the Centurion when Jesus turns to the crowd, marveling and said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (7:9) and, then, to the prostitute that had crashed the Pharisee’s supper party, wet Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair—and in front of all the guests— He announces, “Your faith has saved you” (7:50). Thus, we can (and should) read the question “Where is your faith?” as “you all haven’t figured out yet who I actually am, unlike the Gentile Centurion and unlike the prostitute, who both figured out who I am.”
Second, after Jesus calmed (more so, rebuked) the storm, Luke tells us that the disciples “were afraid” (8:25b). They feared. Not a scared kind of fear. But, the fear one has at the sight of a catastrophe happening right in front of you. The fear one has on a boat in the middle of open water during a life threatening storm. Now their fear has the right object: Jesus. (In the next miracle scene, we also encounter “fear,” namely those who had observed the formerly demon-possessed man clothed and in his right mind sitting at Jesus’ feet (vv. 35-37)).
Third, the narrative sets us up to ask the question “Who is this?” as the disciples had done. After Jesus calms the storm, the disciples, rightfully, now in good fear, asks, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?”(8:25c). The reader—you and me—already knows from the birth narratives this is no ordinary man. Now we are learning (hearing) what kind of non-ordinary man Jesus is. In the next scene, the question the disciples ask is answered by a demonic-possessed, homeless, naked, man sleeping among the tombs: “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (8:28c).
Amid miracles scenes where Jesus is demonstrating his authority over creation and creation-destroying demonic forces, we are to learn that Jesus is the appropriate object of faith—and fear. We are to be like the Gentile Centurion and the prostitute and not like the disciples. Yes. That’s right. Not like the disciples in that boat. We are to learn from the disciples’ misplaced fear of forces they (we) cannot control (aka, the storm and the demonic-forces). Jesus is the right and appropriate object of fear. The issue here with the question “Where is your faith” is not about some faith we must muster up (that’s makes faith us-centered, you-centered, me-centered); but a faith, that is truly believing and a loyalty (the meaning of the word “faith”) that surrenders to the One who has all authority: Jesus, the Son of the Most High.
This is important, first, to the disciples in the narrative, for soon they will be given the commission to imitate Jesus’ authority and mission (9:1). And, we, who are in front of this text, are also to learn that Jesus is the right—and only—object of our faith, the right object of our fear: Jesus, the Son of the Most High who has the power and authority over creation and over creation-destructive powers (the next miracle scene). For, we, too, are to be his disciples, bearing witness to this Jesus.
Wasted Rough Cut: How the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) should be heard . . . just imagine who is around that Table
Sermon prep for and thoughts from my study of the last half of Luke's Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) . . .
Church, imagine a trafficked woman and one who used to enslave women sitting at that Table, after breaking bread, having a supper, and after lifting that fourth cup together to celebrate Jesus as Savior and King . . . imagine a beggar and a wealthy man . . . imagine a wife and her husband, who'd normally have been found with a temple prostitute or at a similar supper using women as entertainment . . . imagine young boys and men who had, until recently, frequented similar suppers where such young boys were entertainment . . . imagine . . . imagine the early church gathered at that Table now ready to listen to someone read the parchments containing Luke's Gospel . . . imagine . . .
Imagine hearing the Sermon on the Plain being read (Luke 6:20-49) . . . imagine they all hear, not only the blessings on the poor and the cursing on the rich (vv. 20-26), but hear “love your enemies,” “do good to those who hate you,” “pray for those who abuse you” (vv. 27--29). . . “do not judge” . . . “do not condemn” . . . “forgive to be forgiven” (v. 37) . . . and “give and lend without regard to getting anything in return” nor “demand back what was taken” (vv. 35, 38) . . . imagine those who were around those first Tables, not only hearing these words, but doing them . . .
Sometimes I think we have it way too easy at this church stuff and that has dulled our hearing . . . and flattened our doing . . . and it is no wonder our houses crash when those winds come . . . it is not enough to be hearing His word and, frankly, it is not enough just to do the word where it is easy and socially and culturally safe.
Other Luke 6 Sermon on the Plain thoughts . . .
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:8-10).
Recently I was in a conversation regarding Jesus’ temptation in the desert. I have always found it rather remarkable that Satan offered to Jesus what already belonged to Him, namely “all the kingdoms of the world.” The temptation wasn’t to possess the kingdoms—Jesus already possessed them—but in how Jesus would respond to the offer.
You and I would have responded, “These are already mine.” Jesus could have responded this way and it would have been all true. Jesus’ response could have been founded on privilege, His status with the Father. But yet, He did not respond in this way.
Satan was attempting to get Jesus to act, to respond from His position as God’s Son. We can see this with the first temptation: “If you are really God’s Son, turn these stones into bread.” In the second, the same: “If you are the Son of God, jump—and God will catch you. Prove it.” In each case, however, Jesus did not respond from the privilege of His status as God’s Son. If He would have, that would have been the end of it—the end of it for all of us. No cross. No salvation. You see, Jesus did not give in to the temptation to assert His special status. No. Not at all. Jesus responded with the only thing that mattered (albeit in different ways, but still each time the same): “I will keep God’s word; I remain faithful to God’s covenant.”
You and I—as I have heard so often—like to boast in our special status with God. For some reason (pride, most likely) we think we impress the non-Christian world with this stand. This is not the way.
While this is true in that a Christian is a son of God, an adopted child of God, the temptation is to prop ourself up in front of others with this position rather than do what is necessary and the only thing that matters: will I keep God’s word and be faithful to His covenant?
Sure, you say you are God’s child, you say you are a king (or queen as it may be). I get the royalty you claim. I know the proof-texts. But what we need to know is: will you keep God’s word and be faithful to His covenant?
The temptation was not in possessing all the kingdoms of the world, but in humbling Himself—even to the point of death on the cross (e.g., Philippians 2:5-11).
This is a real temptation for the Christian: To assert one’s privileged status with God before a watching world. I see this all the time on social media and in conversation among Christians (and in the presence of non-Christians). I even hear this in sermons, instructing Christians to assert their privileged status with God. While most certainly true, this is not the way of discipleship, not the way of following Jesus. All that matters is one thing: God wants to know, the watching world wants to know, even Satan wants to know, will you (will I) keep God’s word and be faithful to His covenant?
We need a better imagination of church: some thoughts and an explanation of my use of "scattered" church
“And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1b, NASB).
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1 Peter 1:1-2, NASB).
❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉
Imagine. If you can. You are a small gathering of Christians in the first century. The new born church that we meet in Acts, now scattered throughout the Gentile world. A very minority church in the Roman Empire up to about 150 C.E. By now, most of Christian fellowship, instruction, and worship was done in homes, catacombs (underground cemeteries), workshops (that were also apartments or hidden away, or above the streets, in tenement-styled, stacked row building apartments.
The “gathering together,” what we could have called “a church,” is still illegal, at least not recognized as religio licita, a permitted cult or religion in the Empire.
That fourth and final cup after the meal was over (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), still treasonous, lifted, now not to Caesar, but to honor Jesus, risen and Lord. Gathering together was still very dangerous.
A non-domestic building, set aside for Christians to gather for worship, was still many decades off, probably 200+ years in the future. The earliest separate building devoted to Christian use was in eastern Roman Syria at Dura Europos on the Euphrates River. Originally a house that had come into a Christian's possession and was remodeled for church gatherings in the 240s. But still, it wasn’t like church buildings were popping up all over the place after Dura Europos. It would still be another century before non-domestic buildings would more readily (and permitted to) be built or designated specifically for gatherings of believers to function as a “church building.” And, still, even around 350 CE, there won’t be a boom of church buildings going up everywhere.
We simply do not have an imagination of the church as revealed in the New Testament. Why is this important?
First, it, that is, the house-church, is how God choose to reveal what He meant by church, a gathered-church. Yes, the difference between “form” and “element” is important; but form develops habits that sneak in to determine element. The form of the New Testament house-church developed habits that taught something about the nature of church as do separated buildings teaches something about church. And, secondly—and to the point in this piece—Churches in the New Testament and in the early church didn’t have the privilege of a legal means of or a culturally acceptable means to gather once a week on a day that is (like our Sunday) a “day off” in what would be, more than a millennia off, come to be called a “weekend.”
Today, with this COVID-19 crisis, what we have is a very non-ordinary time. For us, here in America, at least. For quite some time, we have been pretty much guaranteed the freedom to gather together as churches. And boy do we. All types of church. Big. Medium. Small. In all types of buildings. While there are some home-church movements, most church congregations meet in separately addressed, non-domestic buildings of some kind. Yet, still, even now, there are many churches throughout the world that do not have the freedom to gather together—some because they are oppressed; some because they must hide; some because there is no such thing as a weekend; and, some are simply too poor and exist in under-developed or third world nations.[§] These churches are much closer to the young church than we can imagine.
But, we are beginning to imagine.
Still, it is hard to imagine a church as a “scattered” church. However, I believe we need to have this imagination now.
In the 1 Peter passage, we have a church that is described as geographically “scattered” throughout Asia Minor. And, of course, this “scattered” are small household-churches, gathered together, but still, we need to embrace the term “scattered.” This text, also, tells us that nothing is lacking in this “scattered” church. Though “scattered,” these household-churches were chosen (aka, the elect), all are completely caught up in the sanctifying work of the Spirit, all are charged to obey Messiah Jesus, all fully sprinkled by His blood (i.e., made pure). This spiritual equity is also pointed to in the blessing that Peter immediately brings in his address: “May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1:2d).
The whole of Peter’s first letter describes a church in crisis, amidst culturally formed suffering: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). This affirms that a “scattered” church is a church responding to crisis, under some form of suffering, threat, and/or pressure beyond its control that disrupts everything for them.
Of course the word “scattered” is a pun on the Jewish Diaspora (i.e., the scattered ten tribes of Israel). Yet, this pun works because the young church (or better, young churches, plural) existed in a hostile environment, one of (at least local) persecution, where their neighbors, families, and whom they commerced with, all hold to a polytheistic worldview, and in a surrounding culture that is all about legality (i.e., being considered a legal citizen with standing before the law), blood legitimacy, and social standing (i.e., honor). What is interesting, this pun, being called “scattered” is indeed like the Jewish Diaspora, which had no temple and living as aliens in strange lands (i.e., the idea behind “resident aliens” of 1 Peter 1:1b). This is “scattered” church.
This last description is important, for scattered Israel in and throughout the Greek-Roman world had to learn to be God’s people in a time and in a land not formed by their religious values and habits. In a foreign world. In a land where they had little to no control over their religious habits. Prayer and the Word became very central to scattered Israel. Even non-Diaspora Jews (what we mostly meet in the Gospels) was, as well, not in control of their religious habits. Sure, they had the temple, but it was tolerated and governed and watched over by pagans (aka, outsiders, polytheists, Caesars, haters), who only tolerated the people of Israel (not who accepted them as equals).
This is a time for our imagination of church to include being “scattered.”
This imagination will prepare us for the trials to come. And you need to understand, this is not the trial, but only a preview of what is to come. Someday. Three months ago, we would not have thought it possible to be at this place, being his “scattered” people, a church not in control, regulated by outside pressures and forces, unable to freely meet together.
It is of note, especially with regard to the “scattered” nature of the church in 1 Peter, that, as a “scattered” church, the test or trial is not solely one of individualized faith. As a “scattered” church, what is being tested at this time is loyalty (the actual meaning of the word “faith,” πίστις, pistis). Are we loyal to Jesus and are we loyal to his body? And, by “his body” (aka “the body of Christ”), I do not, as I believe the New Testament writers do not, mean some notion of a universal, invisible church, but loyal to a local body of Christ.
An imagination of “scattered church” will help us to learn new habits that build the body, that strengthen our fellowship of believers, and, very importantly, habits that proclaim in Word and deed that we are followers of Jesus, so that, publicly, others will know that we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35). We are, local and in all locales, a church in crisis. Right now. And, this makes us “scattered” churches. We endure, although scattered, yet together in Christ, so that perhaps, through our suffering, God’s elect [where our “scattered church” exists--for us, the Hill] may obtain the salvation that is in Messiah Jesus (2 Timothy 2:10).
Let us remember, as “scattered church,” we are no less church. We are the full-body of Christ, though scattered. We do not lack anything from God as a scattered church. Even now as scattered church, the blessings of Peter is completely ours in Christ: “May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.”
[§] A Third World country is a developing nation characterized by poverty and a low standard of living for much of its population.
Some people take advantage of a crisis to focus, to listen well (or at least better), and try to hear what God might be saying. I'm trying to listen better
Some people take advantage of crisis for the power they might gain. Some take advantage of crisis to focus on what's important. Some . . . to really listen (or at least well or better than before the crisis). I claim no insight into God's mind and maybe, I'm the only one, but I have been thinking a lot lately as I have been shopping for COVID-19 survival items for my congregation (if anyone needs something) or for my neighbors . . . some early morning pondering . . . So, here's a few things that have been on my mind lately:
☛ This crisis has not caught God by surprise (a cliche, but still true)
☛ Our most vulnerable are truly vulnerable at this time, and that should concern churches
☛ I am way too political (i.e., politically thinking, that is)--and I wish socially minded Christians would stop telling me the gospel is political, which drives us to party politics, not church, not Jesus
☛ Church is easy(er) when we are not facing non-ordinary times
☛ This non-ordinary time is normal times for much of the global church
☛ Church leaders have not prepared Christians for trying times (well, at least, I have not done as good of job as I should have–but that doesn't grow churches well these days) . . . and Christians have let the leaders not prepare them for trying times
☛ No matter how temporary this COVID-19 crisis is, it shows us (or should show us anyway) that things for the church can change on a dime (and fast)
☛ Whatever this COVID-19 crisis is, I am convinced this is a test of faithfulness, not only faithful to Jesus, but also a test of faithfulness to church–not just church in general, but a local church, your particular body of believers
☛ We (i.e., Christians and church leaders) have been counting on the trusted institutions of Christendom to help us maintain the way we do church
☛ We have a poor imagination for doing church, which is a barrier for reaching the lost (i.e., the unchurched).
Okay, I've been thinking a lot.
Some contextual listening required (Part 1): If you don't have the Love, you're no different than a pagan gathering (1 Corinthians 12-13)
Sometimes chapter divisions can detour from hearing what the author of a biblical text has said. This is so true of 1 Corinthians 13. Most, at least from all the sermons I have heard and the weddings I have attended attest. Nonetheless, chapter 12 and chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians are in need of being heard together as if there is no chapter division between them. In fact, there is a bookend link between 12:13 and 13:13:
ζηλοῦτε δὲ τὰ χαρίσματα τὰ μείζονα (12:31a)
μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη (13:13b)
Even those who don’t know New Testament Greek can see it––you can see the word “greater” (μείζονα, 12:31a / μείζων, 13:13b) at the close of chapter 12 and the close of chapter 13. Different endings (like Spanish), of course, but the same word: μέγας (great/greater) in 12:31a and 13:13b. The NASB, as do other translations, offers what I think is a much better read than the ESV: “But earnestly desire the greater gifts” (12:31a, NASB)
Don’t know why the ESV translates the word μέγας as “higher.” I suppose it could, but this doesn’t help the English reader. The mistranslation masks the bookends here, which, in turn, masks the dynamic relationship between 1 Corinthians 12 and 13–these two chapters need to be read as one.
So you can see (and hear) what Paul has crafted (with my more word for word translation):
So what does this do for us as we read chapters 12 and 13 together? First, we take and read the two as one thread and not separate chapter 13 as if it is a stand-alone-text about the vague notion of “love.” Witnessed by the mistaken use of the “Love Chapter” during weddings. Chapter 12 is most certainly about church, so for Paul, chapter 13 is about church as well.
Second, we just had a chapter (12) on the one body of Christ—and please understand Paul is specifically referring to local churches, meeting in someone’s home, thus, “To the church of God that is in Corinth,” 1:2a): one body, many members (cf. 12:12, 27).
Paul begins with the spiritual gifts (12:1), to which he will return in chapter 14, but makes a turn toward people-related gifting at the end of our chapter 12: apostles, prophets, teachers, those that do miraculous gifts of healing, helping, administering, and of course tongues.
Yep. Everyone wants these powerful, status-granting, attention-centered spiritual gifts (let’s be honest). Thus, the need for chapter 13. So, Paul asks,
Yet, he says there is a better way, a more excellent way. Paul then concludes our chapter 12:
Then, Paul instructs his readers/listeners on this more excellent way:
Let’s read 12:27–13:3 as one thread, of course with my interpretative spin (but I think it’s there in Paul’s meaning, a fair reading):
Well, this is a radical thing we have going on here. A new community built on the Love, not status, education, bloodlines, abilities, usefulness, or even spiritual office or gifting. And, then the reader/listener has Paul’s final charge: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (13:13).
Part 2, forthcoming.
Following Jesus Around: How do people (outsiders) know that the kingdom of heaven has appeared? (Matthew 4-11), a Sermon (Part IV)
IV. Our Church Life should be an Invitation to Come to Jesus, take His Yoke, and You will Find Rest: We are to embody the invitation to Come
Our little Hill church puts itself into the heart of the community: at the Hill North Community Management Team, the Free Sidewalk Breakfast each Saturday, our Summer Park BBQ ministry; showing up to almost every community event, and my pastoral street counseling right out my front door.
When John the Baptist was facing the end of his ministry (in Matthew 11), he told his own disciples to go ask Jesus if he was the One or should they look for another (was this for John or his disciples, I have my opinion on that, but it is surely for the church). How do they know Jesus is the One and there is none other to look for? Jesus asks them what they see (which implies action, demonstration, something happening):
How do they know?
➥ the blind receive sight
➥ the lame walk
➥ lepers are cleansed
➥ the deaf hear
➥ the dead are raised up
➥ the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matthew 11:4-6)
This is exactly what Jesus has been doing as his disciples followed him around. No doubt this is Matthew’s version of Luke’s draw on Isaiah 61, which promises that God’s Spirit would be on the Messiah to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal, to free and bring justice (Isaiah 61:1). This is the context in Matthew. This is exactly what Jesus is doing. This is what the temple and synagogue leadership miss, ignore, or are fighting against.They are still bothered for in Matthew 11:19 there is more accusation: . . . they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
We end our thread in Matthew 11 where Jesus invites all who labor and are heavy laden to come. First, Jesus praises the Father that “all things have been handed over” to Him “and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” As Presbyterians, we identify with this divine election. Yet we forget that the means of grace to call the elect is given at the same time: 28Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Recently during a Hill Sunday sermon on Matthew 11, I asked my own congregation: “How do you think the young church, with nothing much to offer, no social or political power, possessing little resources—and life didn’t really get easier and better for early believers. They risked everything, and for most, life got harder. In the first 150 years after Pentecost, how did Christianity became the largest religious sect in and around the Roman Empire? How?
They accepted all into their fellowship, this changed their households . . . street by street, village by village, table by table. It all changed where gathered-churches lived out “Come all who labor and are heavy laden.”
The body of Christ, the local church, with Jesus our Head, ruling and reigning at the Father’s right hand, is His presence in the community, in the Hill community, in your community right here in Concord. We show them Jesus by who we are and what we do so that all who struggle and toil and are carrying burdens no one should carry alone (because they see) hear the invitation to Come to Jesus and take on His yoke and find rest. We are to embody the invitation to Come.
We need to be refreshed in the gospel every time we gather because we need the power of the gospel in order to be the gospel in action.
I might get everything else wrong about church planting . . . I might not even be very good at it, at least not good at what is expected . . . but one thing I will get right, by God’s grace, to help the CPC in The Hill flock understand and know what it means to follow Jesus around . . .
Our church does this . . . even though we are a church in an under-resourced community, we spend ourselves on our community, attempting to associate with the lowly, the hurt, those who's lives are messing, unclean, spoiled, and forgotten. A church needs to be where crowds are (out in the ebb and flow of community life): this is why our small under-resourced church spends its time in the community, places where crowds show up. This is what it means to follow Jesus around and it is how others know that the kingdom of heaven has appeared.
*This sermon was preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Concord, MA on Sunday, May 19, 2019. The full sermon maybe downloaded as a PDF (here). An audio version is also be available >> Audio version
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
Some post Easter streams of consciousness (mixed with a little Game of Thrones from last night's episode):
“Our enemy doesn’t tire, doesn’t stop, doesn’t feel.”
The first Easter was revealed, quietly, away from most public eyes. Those with no standing in society, its only testifiers, its only witnesses. (The women if you're trying to guess whom.)
And this got me thinking, last night, with season 8, episode 2 of Game of Thrones there was an interesting juxtaposition to our memory of that first Easter morn. As the brave leaders of Westeros, the very diverse band, many now enemies become battle compatriots, Jon reminds them: “Our enemy doesn’t tire, doesn’t stop, doesn’t feel.”
The NT tells us the cross was the place, the moment in time, where the powers (visible and invisible) has been disarmed. The resurrection of Jesus is God's declaration that all his foes and enemies now vanquished. Still, we have a battle on our hands. A battle for the souls of each person–eternity is at stake for each one. A battle for the honor of our King of kings. Yet, I am left feeling whether the sleepy, rights-oriented, deserving-everything-but-not-working-for-it, comfort-driven, beauty-focused, war-adverse, hard-things-relunctant, and deserving millennial and z-Gens actually grasp that, as Jon of GOT reminds, “our enemy doesn’t tire, doesn’t stop, doesn’t feel.”
The discipleship now being expected and taught from millennials and z-Gens is probably incapable of developing the character needed to take on the battles to come. Most discipleship of younger people is by design and by default to help "me" be more skillful and content and happy in negotiating the idolatries of both our secular world and the Christendom world in which our current church-life exists.
There are signs that things are changing for the church, if you are willing to notice: seminaries and seminary sites closing or down-sizing, church-buildings around the world being demolished, blown up, or abandoned, the secularization (and politically partisan use) of Christian language being used to justify alignment with the state (and/or a vision of the state), and the list is growing . . . while some of this is good for the church, making it less dependent on current Christian industries and systems (that are not necessarily biblical), they do spell trouble and danger for the church in days to come. Again, remember, our ultimate foe, “Our enemy," he and they do not "tire, doesn’t stop, doesn’t feel.”
So, what do we do . . . well, a call for millennials and z-Gens to get biblically serious and that a far better understanding of "church" be had (developed). For, if I read my Bible and (especially) NT correctly, it is the local, gathered-church applying the cross in its midst is the place and space where we do battle with the powers (visible and invisible).
Let's reconsider two Biblical thoughts from our favorite-to-quote-bucket–“take up your cross” and “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39)–and see if we can save them from the pile of Christian clichés.
We should pay closer attention to the narrative context as we read the text from which these two are found, before we make application: that is, hearing the significance, then making application.
Taking up one’s cross is often used devotionally to move Christians toward obedience; and, losing-finding one’s life is often used toward the nonChristian to draw them to Christ. Not bad things (or outcomes), but rather than a general (privatized) application of these–which, by the way, these are toward Christians for faithful perseverance and endurance in the faith, which is the context, e.g., “. . . the one who endures to the end will be saved,” 10:22b–and, thus, a more specific application is warranted.
First, the context is specific:
The immediate paragraph context is the strain and conflict between believing and unbelieving household members. Household conflict in general would have threatened heir legitimacy (the reason for the household in the first place in Greco-Roman culture and social construct, to produce and protect a legitimate male-citizen heir), the passing on of wealth and family social standing, and would have put at risk one’s survival . . . so literally one “saves” one's life through the family/household and “loses” one’s life apart from family (that is, a household under a patriarch, male-head-of-household). This was the Greco-Roman way (in the time of New Testament).
This makes better since of Jesus’ words: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). And, so, taking up one's cross (v. 38a) is related to what happens when following Jesus puts one in a place, “for Jesus’ sake” (v. 39b), where one can no longer count on the social construct available for life (literally for survival).
So, the significance of this text and these “clichés” is, following Jesus (which this text is about; v. 38b) means to die to (i.e., no longer count on or trust) the ways in which our social constructs and cultural norms provide identity, security, and worth. The Christian’s identity, security, and worth is located in Jesus and his cross. This is the gospel. This is truly Christian discipleship, that is following after Jesus. This is losing one’s life (i.e., giving up, abandoning, rejecting, not trusting in such social norms--again--for identity, security, and worth) to find real, true life through following Jesus.
The question would, then, be what social constructs and cultural norms give us identity, security, and worth? These we need to die to in order to have real, true life. This is what it means to actually follow Jesus.
The following is adapted from my book Destroying Our Private Cities, a lay commentary on Paul's Letter to the Philippian church. I used an abbreviated form of this personal illustration during a recent sermon at Christ Presbyterian Church in The Hill, the church I am privileged to pastor in the Hill community of New Haven, Connecticut. The sermon was on Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners (from Matthew 9); was used in a presentation on submitting to spiritual authority, the section on "Learning to Imitate Jesus." This illustration is the conclusion to my chapter on "Putting Jesus to Our Potential," an exposition on Philippians 2:5-11
A Menial Job
Through my seminary years I worked part‑time to help support my family. My job consisted of the two things I despise more than anything on earth: cleaning and vacuuming. I was a janitor. Already I was a wreck emotionally. The combination of being a nobody at school and a janitor for a daycare center made things worse. I felt I was not fulfilling my potential.
One day while cleaning a toilet I got angry at God. Slamming the sponge down into the toilet bowl, I said, “I am a preacher, a teacher. And here I am cleaning toilets!” I protested not getting the church position. I complained about not preaching. My insecurities matched my “unfulfilled potential.” I knew I was dealing with pride, but I thought my complaint was justified because I did have gifts, you know!
In the midst of my tantrum, God brought to my mind a sermon illustration I had heard back at college. The preacher recalled the story of a rather well‑to‑do graduate student who finished top of his class with a doctorate. He felt called to the ministry, and a rather prestigious Philadelphia congregation invited him to be their pastor. But the young man felt called to work with William Booth in England. So he left America to apply for a ministry with the Salvation Army.
At the interview, Mr. Booth told the young man there was no place for him. His education and wealthy-status would hinder him from taking orders from street preachers, some of them former drunks and prostitutes. But the young man was persistent, and Mr. Booth gave him a try. He sent him to a dark, dingy cellar to clean and shine the muddy boots of the street preachers.
After a while, it occurred to the young man that indeed he might be wasting his talents and gifts. “You call yourself a servant of God,” the devil seemed to be saying, “but look at you. You’re squandering all you have to offer.” The man thought of the Philadelphia pulpit he had turned down. But as those thoughts danced in his head, another Voice whispered, “It’s all right. I washed their feet too.”
My Ego, Not My Potential, Was Offended
There at my daycare janitorial job, I realized the issue was pride and my false sense of fulfillment. It was my ego that had been offended, not my potential.
Here in the United States we have, now, over 300 million “most important persons in the whole world.” Logic would suggest someone’s potential is going to be sacrificed. The mind of Christ turns this idea right‑side‑up. We must consider that the pursuit of our potential might actually be a disadvantage for others and a hindrance to the gospel. It is not self‑fulfillment but self‑submission that God desires.
But you say, “If I give myself to sacrificial obedience, I could be put in a position where I was taken advantage of. I could be used and, even worse, abused.” That possibility exists. And it happens far too often. The solution is not to reject the biblical text and shrink from sacrificial service to others. The solution is to exercise the mind of Christ. Each of us has limited time, energy and resources. We should be selective. The Christ‑hymn of Philippians 2 supplies the appropriate elements for the decision‑making process.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.