Halfway Assessment: Reflections on How Seminary Has Changed Me…

A little over a week ago I found out that I am now up for candidacy assessment, which all (or most?) at George Fox Seminary who are reaching the midway point of their programs must undergo. It essentially evaluates how well or not well I’m handling my courses, whether or not I’m growing in a healthy way spiritually, and then ultimately it decides if I’m up to the task of finishing. From all of what I have read about it thus far, it’s a simple means of determining whether or not my degree program is benefitting me and those around me. It is such a weird feeling to be nearly halfway done with a pursuit that I began a little over a year ago.

Part of the assessment asks how my theology has changed over the duration of my time at George Fox. This was a tough question to answer mostly because we’re supposed to keep our words few and our meaning specific, but also because I am not sure whether it is better defined as a theological shift – a change in what I believe – or as a coagulation of things that I believed in part – undercurrent beliefs or questions long held, but merely affirmed throughout my time in seminary.

For example, I believe that women can and ought to be on the forefront of ministerial leadership, which includes being the head pastor of a church, but is not limited to that. Even if Adam and Eve were truly the first humans, Eve – as the supposed model for all women – is the co-helper with Adam and vice versa. Women being placed beneath men is a consequence of humanity’s break with God, which was then mended in and through Christ, rendering there to be “no longer Jew or Greek, … slave or free, … male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[1] When we treat and value women as equally capable leaders and thinkers, we are ushering in the new creation that Christ has established.

I believe that calling God “Father” is not a terrible thing to do, but that there are plenty of shortcomings in taking this label – as really with any label – further to attribute “masculine” characteristics back onto God. There are also shortcomings with calling God “Mother” as well, which only means that any label we would like to give God that depends solely on modern terminology (or even dated terminology) will only wind up leaving us with a God in our own image – or the image we would like God to be in. This is not to say we create God in our own image when we call God Father or Mother, but to say that we must always allow God to be God – transcendent beyond gender, time, and material, yet embedded deeply and relentlessly active within each. God is much larger than our simple regurgitations of our pastors’ favorite theologians.

I believe our understanding of sexuality from the lens of Scripture is exceedingly limited – particularly with homosexuality. Declaring heterosexuality the norm based on a text from a time period where loving, caring, homosexual relationships were practically non existent (at the very least, not attested for) – where in fact homosexual acts were a means of expressing dominance – is stifling the voices of the LGTBQ community before they’re even given a chance to speak. At that point, we are no longer bullying them; we’re dehumanizing them.

Lastly, and not at all of least importance, I believe that racism is still alive and manifests itself in many realms and on many levels. The people of Ferguson, Missouri and their reaction to the killing of unarmed Michael Brown is but a taste of what many marginalized races have been feeling for God knows how long. And, most importantly, this is not to harmonize all races – that because they have the same struggle, they must have the same story. This is profoundly not true. The story of the Native American people – my own heritage – is not the same as the African-American people nor the same as the African, Korean, Afghan, Palestinian or any other marginalized people’s story. Loving one’s neighbor, particularly in this context, is not standing idly by while fellow siblings are trampled on and dehumanized without being given a chance to speak for themselves. And yet at the same time, it means not taking up their cry for justice as one’s own and further muting their voice. Inasmuch as I can claim the Cherokee people as my own heritage, I cannot claim their struggle as my own; I was raised by a successful, white family (my mother is white). But I can certainly help.

One must pardon the matter-of-fact nature with which I write all these; there has been an exhausting amount of controversy revolving around each of these lately and I am simply fed up with the lack of neighborly love shown from fellow Christians (and of course, myself). In many ways, those who have been marginalized, whether Christian or not, have displayed greater Christ-likeness than many of the Christians arguing against them. Rather than responding in kind, they’ve chosen to love their neighbors as themselves (similar to what Paul describes in 2 Cor. 6:1-10). In many ways, I have been challenged to follow their example.

By and large the biggest challenge of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is listening to one’s neighbor and allowing them to define themselves in their own terms. I have no right to tell the gay Christian that she is not really a Christian because she is gay; I am not God, therefore, I am not omniscient. Furthermore, Jesus teaches that we will know the false believers by the fruit they bear; are the predominately-white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri truly bearing Christ-like fruit when advancing on peaceful, unarmed gatherings (which is a right granted to all by the 1st Amendment) or are the protestors – who have shown a greater wherewithal to protect their own community peaceably – showing bad fruit by crying out for justice for Michael Brown and his family (and the families of many other black men and women killed and demonized within white communities)?

Seminary hasn’t changed me, really. It’s simply helped me refine things I have already been believing for some time and then challenged me with opportunities to live out those beliefs. And as I have said, these beliefs are quite simple: loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself – valuing them as equally as I value myself despite the drastic differences there may be between us. If I am only at the midpoint of my seminary experience, I have a lot of work ahead of me.

God bless.

[1] Gal. 3:28, NRSV. Paul here repeats “there is no longer” to further emphasize the break from “the way things are.” Richard B. Hays writes, “Paul is echoing the language of Gen. 1:27: ‘male and female he created them.’ To say that this created distinction is no longer in force is to declare that the new creation has come upon us, a new creation in which even gender roles no longer pertain.New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol. XI, p. 273, emphasis mine.

“It’s the little things…”

“If you do this, you’re going to keep doing it.”

Minutes ago, I canceled my Netflix membership. I know that it won’t take much to start it back up, but with my first day of classes at George Fox Evangelical Seminary coming up, I figured it’d help not to have immediate distractions. Between work and school, I won’t have much time to enjoy the shows I’ve enjoyed over the summer. I won’t have much time for anything.

I have a fear of responsibility. Okay, much of that “fear” is actually a habit of procrastination, but there is a portion of it that is fear. I’m not afraid of paying bills, showing up to work or school, or even keeping my room clean. I’m afraid of moving off to a city to attend seminary only to find that I’m not cut out for it.

There is no logical reasoning for this fear; my favorite professor recommended me for this school, a professor at George Fox awarded me six credits based upon my undergraduate work, and deep down I love a good challenge. But ever since I was a kid, despite receiving good grades, I always had this fear that I wasn’t smart enough. In a society that tended to value young men based upon their athletic abilities, I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up intellectually.

Over the years, though, this fear has almost dissipated entirely.

Almost.

It creeps up every now and then – especially when I’m faced with a subject I know nothing about.

And maybe we all have some degree of this kind of fear?

Maybe many of our athletic or extra-curricular achievements are really our efforts to compensate for what we think are our academic shortcomings?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but thinking through my scholastic history I can see plenty of times where I used sports, new clothes, or even my Lego creations to cover up areas where I believed I was less than intelligent in. I can recall plenty of times where I was afraid someone might think of me as stupid.

Obviously this fear of mine has less to do with my level of intelligence and more to do with my image problem. Thankfully enough, we talked about hypocrisy last night.

“We” being a few members of Emmaus Life meeting at Scott’s place for our Villages group – it’s kind of like a Bible study. Scott had us read through Luke 12:1-12 and we discussed various verses we liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. We ended the night by talking about an application from the passage (and by eating ice cream).

What stood out to me were Jesus’ words in the opening passage of chapter 12:

“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (vv. 1-3)

My immediate reaction was not to think about the things I’ve said when no one else is around, but rather what I’ve thought. People can sometimes guess what you’re thinking, but more often than not, they have no clue. So if you’re thinking about how funny looking they are, they won’t have a clue (of course, they could be thinking of how funny looking you are). Yet what Scott pointed out was the importance of context: What did Jesus say before verses 2 and 3?

“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”

Jesus was warning his disciples about the Pharisees because they epitomized what it means to be afraid of how people view you. Jesus says the religious elite are making long prayers, taking the best seats in the synagogues, and always positioning themselves in places of power. And what is social power? Isn’t it entirely public opinion? Isn’t it entirely based upon how others see you?

Jesus is telling his disciples that what others think of them doesn’t matter. Instead what does matter is being a genuine person by simply being honest. Be honest when you mess up. Be honest when you don’t know something.

Be honest.

Plain and simple.

Obviously it’s not that simple – otherwise wouldn’t more people be honest? But what makes it so difficult? What hinders us from being honest? Maybe our friends will think less of us? Maybe our employers won’t think we’re capable? Maybe we experience every bit of social rejection there is to experience?

And that’s Jesus’ point.

“At the end of the day, what can man really do to me?” Scott asked us in rhetorical fashion last night. If, like the very next passage teaches us, we’re supposed to fear God because of His ability to cast us into hell, then why would we ever want to fear man? And yet Jesus says, “Fear not.”

Our reaction to God should be that of awe, yet not to the point of being terrified over everything we do because of what God might do to us. Why is that? God loves us. He cares enough for us to count the number of hairs on our head. If He knows how many hairs on our heads and has the ability to cast us into hell, then why hasn’t He? If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we know that we deserve something much less than heaven.

God keeps us around not for His own personal gain, but for every bit of our own gain. God is delighted in the act of giving, especially to those of us who cannot do anything by our own power, which includes all of us because we can’t make our own hearts beat or our lungs breathe. And the lives we’ve been given are watered down and stifled by our fear of anything other than God – in a word, hypocrisy. After all, isn’t hypocrisy merely a reflection of our fear of social rejection?

How do we stop it, then?

Jon Derby, a member of Emmaus Life and someone I’ve known for about a decade, gave us a wonderful piece of insight last night. He said that it’s the little things we do that change how we live and who we become. A little fib here, a little misrepresentation there and all of a sudden we have people believing we’re someone other than our actual selves. As Paul says, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” (Gal. 5:9).

Yet Jon – or as we call him, “Derb” – said it’s the same thing to counter our bad habits: the little things. When we encounter those moments where we have a choice to act in a way that reflects God or act in a way that reflects an image we want for ourselves, if we choose God’s way, little by little, we’ll have the habit of choosing God’s way more often than not.

In last week’s episode of Suits a scene came up that was also brought up in last night’s discussion on hypocrisy. It was a flashback to when Harvey Specter and Donna Paulsen were working at the District Attorney’s office. They were talking about how Harvey’s boss made him bury evidence that might have set two criminals free (burying evidence is against the law):

“Now why don’t you tell me why you didn’t tell me?” (Donna)

“Because you hated me when I was working in the gray; this is the black.” (Harvey)

“I didn’t hate you; I was trying to stop you… If you do this, you’re going to keep doing it.”

What Donna told Harvey that day saved his entire career as an attorney. And all she advised him to do was not to do this once. Not even once. Since that day, Harvey Specter developed a sterling reputation as an undefeated lawyer. If we make up our minds not to do the sinful things once – not even once – and to do the God things instead, imagine what kind of lives we’ll be living.

At the end of the day, we may not have very many friends, a job, or really anything when we choose to act out God’s ways in the little things. But we’ll have a much easier time standing before Him attesting for all the things we did and didn’t do. And we’ll have Jesus to back us up.

“And wisdom will honor everyone who will learn,

To listen, to love, and to pray and discern,

And to do the right thing even when it burns

And to live in the light through treacherous turns.” – Josh Garrels, “Beyond the Blue”

God bless.

“YOLO, yo…”

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “YOLO,” which stands for “you only live once.” Of course many people will know that this is really a hip way of saying “carpe diem,” which is Latin for “seize the day.”

Countless people have tweeted, updated their statuses, and uploaded Instagram photos using this phrase as a hash-tag as if to say, “Life is short, so this is what I’m doing.” On the positive side is the cherishing of every single moment in life. But on the negative side, which happens way more than it should, is the living recklessly.

No, not everyone who uses this phrase is reckless. In fact, I think most who use this phrase do not have a reckless or irresponsible lifestyle. But there are many who do and one can clearly see why: it justifies whatever one is doing, whether good or bad.

It justifies getting drunk every night despite the amount of homework one has. It says that it’s okay to sleep around or to try different kinds of drugs. “Life is short,” goes the reasoning, “might as well.” It is dangerous because it promotes the forbidden. It’s like Adam and Eve in the Garden; Adam says, “No, we shouldn’t eat that fruit!” Eve replies, “YOLO, yo.” Adam says, “Fair point, okay…”

What can we do to replace such an ideology?

Answer: YOLE.

You only live eternally.

Or to put it another way, you only die once; you spend the rest of the time alive. I don’t intend to get into any kind of lengthy discussion about heaven and hell, which one’s real, which one’s sort of real. But I will say that I tend to agree with Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz; that hell is simply eternal loneliness. Or C.S. Lewis’ (at least I think it was him) belief that whatever we wanted we’d get for eternity, but we’d get the consequences for eternity as well.

What’s my point? This current life matters not because we should try everything and live whatever crazy lives we want to; but because we are being prepared for eternity.

If we want to live well with God for eternity, then we must be living well with God now. We must be guarding ourselves against unhealthy teachings and practicing the healthy teachings – or as Paul says, “sound doctrine.”

No, I don’t mean that belief statement you once signed or were asked to sign; I mean beliefs that promote a healthy and Spirit-filled walk with the Lord. I mean teachings that lead us to be selfless, kind, patience, self-controlled, humble; to regard others as better than ourselves and to see ourselves not as someone who ought to be served, but rather to serve.

“Sound doctrine” could also be translated as “healthy doctrine,” which essentially points out that whatever we believe determines our spiritual health. If we believe that we ought to sleep around and get drunk, then we aren’t going to have very healthy spiritual lives (or even healthy physical lives). But if we believe that true religion or true Godliness is loving God and loving your neighbor, then we will be healthy.

We are being prepared for eternity like high school students for college. If we are only being selfish, then we’re going to get nothing but ourselves for eternity. No one to talk to, to laugh with, or to hold. If we are allowing ourselves to be persuaded by public opinion and what the masses say, then we will be constantly going with the flow, heading straight for the waterfall.

To prepare well for eternity, Paul says, is to live a healthy life – not being controlled by pleasures and comforts of this world, but seeking to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Being spiritually healthy means being kind, patient, peaceful, loving, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22). Seize the day to prepare for tomorrow.

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things,” Philippians 4:8, NASB

You only live eternally; how are you preparing?

God bless.

Righteous Attire…

Easter Sunday, just like the Sunday before Christmas, has some of the nicest-dressed people. Shirts and ties, sundresses and sweaters, and even the occasional three-piece suit generally fill the sanctuary seats (or in my case this morning, bleachers) and give the guy in jeans and a t-shirt with a baseball hat (me) the impression that he’s a little underdressed. It’s like there was a memo sent to everyone that he didn’t get.

It used to kind of bug me a few years ago. It seemed to me that by dressing up really nicely, in our Sunday best, we were trying to make people think that God values our looks. I felt really bad for the people who didn’t have the money to afford the fancy clothes or anything more than jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies. I wondered how they must have felt amongst all the starched collars and perfumed fabric.

God does care about how we look, though. He does care that we aren’t walking around half – or even completely – naked. And, because it usually matters to our neighbors (especially roommates and spouses), He does care about our personal hygiene and hopes we’re taking showers every now and then. But whether we’re wearing the best-looking clothes or not, I don’t think it matters all that much.

Instead I think God cares about a different appearance. I think God cares more about our spiritual attire and what kind of character we reflect. To Him, it doesn’t matter what you wear, but rather Who you wear.

When Jesus left this world, when He died, He did so naked. “And they cast lots to divide his clothing,” Luke 23:34b. If He had entered the tomb naked, then I’d have to believe that He also left naked. And if He didn’t need clothes to conquer death, why should we care so much about what we wear on Easter Sunday – or any Sunday for that matter?

Please don’t take this too literally; it’s important that we all show up with clothes on every Sunday. Also, I understand the tradition of dressing nicely on the days we celebrate. But when our lives are considered in their entirety, when we evaluate all that we’ve done in this world, I’d have to think God would rather have us dressed in righteous attire – clothes that reflect who He is.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law,” – Galatians 5:22-23

Those are the sorts of things we ought to wear. According to Jesus, it’s how people know we’re His disciples (John 13:35).

I’m not saying it’s a sin to wear your best clothes; I golfed for several years – it’s fun to dress up once in a while. But when we do dress nicely, I think we should make sure we aren’t indirectly belittling our neighbor who can’t afford the fine clothing, or that we aren’t trying to be noticed by everyone, or that we aren’t wanting people to think we’re successful because we wear expensive clothes. After all, God defines success as quality of character; not quality of clothing.

A random post for Easter Sunday, I know. But I think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about all too often. I think a lot of people just assume that’s what you’re supposed to do when you go to church, but when you read Scripture – especially the red letters (Matthew 6:28-30) – you get the opposite message. Easter is about celebrating what Christ has done for us with our families (both biological and spiritual). It’s not about us being noticed by others, but rather others noticing Christ in us.

Happy Easter and God bless!

Inspiration behind this post:

“Use Your Brain!” – Paul on the Importance of Discernment…

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

“Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does those things will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit,” – Galatians 3: 1-14 (NIV)

Paul rips open a major flaw in the Galatian churches: their inability to discern. He calls them foolish a couple of times and asks them who “bewitched” them or who tricked them. But what does it mean “to discern”? And why does Paul treat it as a crucial ability in this case?

Dictionary.com defines “discern” as the ability “to perceive by the sight or by some other sense or by the intellect,” or “to distinguish mentally.” Essentially, it’s an ability that involves using your head. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we actually practice discernment on a daily basis. Which shirt will I wear? What will I eat for breakfast? Which running back will help my fantasy team?…

The ability to discern also goes beyond daily choices we might make. A general question we all face after graduating high school is: Will I go to college? If so, which one? And once I’m there, what will be my major? And once I’ve graduated with that degree, what will I do with it? Where will I live? Who will I marry? And on and on the decisions go. Whether we like it or not, life requires us to make decisions. It’s probably a good idea, then, to develop a strong sense of discernment.

When it comes to discerning in the spiritual sense, however, there is a little bit more to think about. Paul’s rhetorical questions in verses 2 through 5 allude to the greater issue at hand: If, by having faith in and believing Paul’s original teachings, they received the Spirit, why then are they turning to the law of Judaism? But why is he so adamant about calling the Galatians foolish? Because they failed to recognize – they failed to discern – that they already had the Spirit of God living and working within them.

A modern-day example of Christians not using their heads is what’s called “the prosperity gospel”; the good news that Jesus has come to bless our lives with wealth, possessions, and overall happiness. Now I for one believe God wants us to enjoy the lives He has given us. In John 16:24b, Jesus says, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” (ESV). But when it gets translated into a message of monetary success, I get a little irritated. That’s not within the promise. If anything’s promised in Jesus’ words to His disciples, it is absolutely not acquiring riches and possessions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. At the end of John 16, Jesus promises His disciples that there will be hard times and days of suffering ahead of them for following after Him: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world,” (16:33, ESV).

So what’s wrong with this “prosperity gospel” and why should we be intellectually attentive to its teachings? Because it has misleading promises. In a very similar way, the teachings of the certain Jews who came to Galatia carried misleading promises: They said their fulfilling of the law would bring about the Spirit of God and salvation. They said it’s by what you do that determines your stance with God. But Paul very clearly says otherwise: “It is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham,” – 3:7. Implicitly here, Paul says it’s not those who practice and carry out the law – because that is a hopeless endeavor.

In our walks with Christ – and in life in general – we must use our brains to think through tough decisions. We must discern between what is God’s teaching and what is man’s teaching. And it will never benefit us to be ignorant.

“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself,” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

God bless.

Runnin’ and Tumblin’…

Grace has always been a difficult thing to grasp. Even before Jesus walked the earth, followers of God were very stubborn and flat out idiotic as to the depths of God’s grace and what it really meant. As we touched on last week, they started to believe that God would grant His grace to the people who upheld His law – the people who basically did the good deeds that God commanded them to.

In our modern day society, we have a general belief going around that if you do good things to others, good things will happen to you. It’s what is taught in the phrase “What goes around comes around,” or even in the simple term, “karma.” Many people believe that no matter how miserable their lives are now, if they continue to do good to others, then whatever future life they may have will be blessed. Essentially, you reap what you sow.

To a certain extent it’s true. Whatever we decide to do with our lives, there are always consequences. If I don’t show up to work, I won’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, I won’t be able to pay rent. If I can’t pay rent, I’ll end up on the streets. All of a sudden it seems like a good idea to show up to work.

What then is grace? It is the act of being given something we do not deserve – reaping something that we did not sow. Why is it important for today’s message? In the second half of Galatians 2, we see a confrontation between Peter and Paul about this very issue: Either sticking to the traditions of old that were very works-driven or to embrace the grace of God for all its ridiculousness.

Peter wanted to stick with the traditions of old, especially when his Jewish friends arrived, even though he understood full well what the grace of God is. This is not at all the first time Peter failed to act according to God’s teaching through Jesus. We see several moments of him running and stumbling through this new life in Christ.

In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus is telling His disciples what He’s about to go through. Peter, being the ever brash guy that he is, boldly tells Jesus, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” How does Jesus respond? “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

And yet again in Mark 14:29, Peter says He will never fall away from Jesus. But what happens in verses 66-72? Peter denies that he even knew Jesus 3 different times. And even in the story of Jesus walking on water, Peter fails to fully trust in Jesus. He steps out on the water for a while, but quickly begins to sink because he’s looking at the waves and wind and it’s scaring him.

What I have always found interesting about Peter’s story, though, is that no matter what, he’s still following Jesus. Like I said, he tripped and slipped throughout his entire life as a Christian. But the most important part is that he kept on going.

He didn’t quit. He didn’t give up.

What allowed him to keep going? Even though he fell countless times, what compelled him to get back up? It’s exactly what Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As Paul says repeatedly earlier on (and later in the letter), Christ was only made able to live in and through each of us because of God’s limitless grace. We didn’t do anything to earn God’s favor; He just gave it to us.

My point this week is simple: Keep going – especially when you fall. Why should you keep going? Because one of the most prominent figures in early Christianity was one of Christ’s biggest failures. Time after time after time, Peter dropped the ball. And yet Jesus named Him, “The Rock,” which is what “Peter” means in Greek.

In your walk with Christ, you are going to fail, repeatedly. But such failure is not permanent because all our failures were put to death on the cross of Christ. Whatever power guilt and shame used to have has been rendered powerless by the blood of Christ. This life of faith is not a sprint – not even a competition we must beat everyone else at. It’s a race of endurance. We win because Christ gives us the grace and strength to continue on through our failures.

God bless.

“Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again,” – Proverbs 24:16

Drinking the Water of Christ…

(This is the 3rd message of the Galatians series I’m doing for the high school group at Calvary Fellowship. However, no one showed up yesterday, so this will actually be next week’s message. I thought I’d post it anyway. Hope you enjoy!)

Although it seems really odd to us today, circumcision was a major part of Judaism in Paul’s time. It was a way to separate Jew from Gentile – Israelite from Greek. But what Paul often describes in his letters was how circumcision became a form of slavery in the spiritual sense.

“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek,” Galatians 2:3

This verse alludes to the heart of the issue: Embracing the freedom of the gospel or seek the acceptance of the dominant religious elite by keeping the traditions of old.

We touched on this the first week by talking about where we place identity; is it with those who seek the acceptance of society or with someone else? But this week we’re looking at what is truly liberating about the gospel of Jesus.

Judaism, especially ancient Judaism, is a rather legalistic religion. If you ever get a chance, just breeze through Leviticus 11-15 – I know, not a very exciting book to read, but these chapters describe the purity laws of Judaism. If you were a Jew, you held these laws no matter what. But at the time of Jesus and Paul there was another set of laws which the priests and religious elite held their fellow Jews to.

Even though it was written down a couple hundred years after Christ’s death, the Mishnah (which is a part of what’s called the Talmud) represents the kind of oral traditions that were prevalent in Jesus’ time. These oral laws were as equally authoritative in that time period as the rest of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).

An example comes from Mark 2:23-28:

“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’

And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’

And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Notice the key word in this passage, “lawful.” Judaism in Jesus’ time had become a very systematic religion that was mostly void of any authentic faith in God. People were more concerned about keeping accordance with what their religious leaders were telling them than actually seeking out a personal relationship with God. When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he had to deal with this problem head on.

The systematic nature of ancient Judaism is a nature that has permeated every religion of our day. Groups of leaders come together to set up these codes of conduct that they want all their followers to abide by. No doubt some have a good intent behind it; they want to make sure they’re obeying God rather than man. But what always gets overlooked is how their own commandments and laws become more authoritative than the commandments and laws of God. This was the issue with the Galatian churches; Jewish-Christians were coming forward appearing to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, but still clinging to the traditions of old – and requiring everyone else to do the same.

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” – Matthew 15:7-9 

What is the gospel? It is the good news that Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves. These religious systems attempt to enable all followers to attain a certain level of spirituality by what they do. If they obey, then their lives are going to be great. If they don’t obey, then they’re lives are going to be hell. Paul’s words to the Galatians meant this: It is not by what you do or what you believe in; it is by whom you believe in that saves you – not just from hell or condemnation, but from the legalistic systems of this world.

Followers of the Way, which was a way of describing followers of Christ back in antiquity, were hated not because they were annoying people with funeral protests and Koran burnings; they annoyed people because they believed in Jesus – a God-man who broke their system to pieces.

Obviously the system still pervades in our day. We have countless books about systematic theology (the title alone should be a warning) and what Christians should believe. But Paul repeatedly argues that what we really need to believe in is the fact that we are loved so much by our God He died for us so we may live with Him in eternity.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” Galatians 1:3-4

This week’s encouragement is to think about why we show up to church. Is it because we’re trying to please that false god of religious legalism? Is it because we’re trying to fit in with the rest of the Christian crowd? Is it because we’re trying to look good to the elites of our society? Or is it because we thirst for something beyond the system?

“People who have been starved of water for a long time will drink anything, even if it is polluted,” NT Wright, Simply Christian

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” – Jesus, John 4:13-14

Which well are you drinking from?