Stop Hating on Worship

Theologically-minded people get cynical.

This is to our shame.

One of the worst places that this cynicism shows up is in corporate worship as we sing songs to God. I know because I experience this personally on a weekly basis. I get critical about what we sing, and I hear my friends talk about it, too.

But really, we need to stop.

Yes, there are reasons to dislike certain worship songs.

Yes, it is true that many songs are less than 100% theologically precise.

Yes, some songs even use apparently incorrect theology.

Despite all this, rarely does a song pop up with is legitimately dangerous or so wrong that it cannot be sung by a godly heart. The songs which make rounds in our average evangelical Protestant churches may not always be of the highest musical and theological quality, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to cringe at lyrics when we could be worshipping the Almighty God.

And honestly, I’m rarely convinced that the problems identified with certain songs actually have to be problems. More often than not, we let our idiosyncrasies distort the reality. We’re so smug and proud of our theological purity that we are immediately suspicious of wording that we might not have chosen, even if the actual meaning is perfectly innocuous. We would be better off suspending our judgment and trying to figure out if a line is really flirting with heresy or if maybe we’re reading it wrong.

Take a couple of examples.

In “Holy Spirit” by Kari Jobe, I’ve heard people take issue with the line, “Holy Spirit, You are welcome here.” The usual response is, “Who do we think we are to tell the Holy Spirit where He is welcome? He can come and go wherever He wants!” But this is a silly objection. No one singing this line means to say, “Alright, Holy Spirit, in my personal sovereignty I give You, my humble Servant, permission to enter this room.” The real meaning is clear to anyone who is willing to give the benefit of the doubt: we are eager and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. We are praying for Him to act, saying that we are willing to listen and not resist.

“Good, Good Father” also gets a lot of flack, not just among theological types but even many others. I’ve seen some serious hate directed its way, such as here and here. And I’ll admit quickly that it’s a bit silly, certainly not quality music, especially in the first verse. But even so, I think the criticisms are mostly off-base. People complain about “You tell me that You’re pleased” as though the Father does not declare us pleasing to Him in the Son. One Calvinist complained about “I’m loved by You” as though Christians should remain skeptical about God’s love for them while worshipping Him. They hate on the mindless repetition, vague sentimentality, and lack of any distinctively Christian language. But really, really, what can you actually find in this song that explicitly contradicts Scripture and would be sung by your average worshipper in a way that turns them away from their heavenly Father? I find no such thing.

I won’t bother with any more examples for now. The point is clear enough. We need to quit with the snobbery, the arrogance, the hyper-particularity that distract our minds from the divine glory. Every once in a while we might stumble upon a song that is legitimately unacceptable, but most of the time we’re being picky, failing to apply the benefit of the doubt, and asserting our superiority over people who write and sing these songs. That’s not worship. So let’s leave this all behind and just focus on God. (And if the lyrics trip you up, be creative. I’m sure you can find an interpretative way to sing them with a meaning that fits your theology, unless your theology is a jerk.)

Stop Hating on Worship

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]

I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.

All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:

  1. Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
  2. Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
  3. Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
  4. Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.

So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.

Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.

So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.

Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.

As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

Three Thoughts on Communion

I’ve been thinking a lot about Communion in recent weeks, and there are three things which have stuck in my mind:

  • Communion is first and foremost about Christ and His Body, not Christ and me. Now, I see people give lip service to this notion every once in a while. But I’ve rarely seen it put into practice. Most Communion services encourage people to reflect on Christ’s death for me, deal with my own sins, consider my personal walk with Jesus, and eat individually (or at widest, by family). None of this aligns with what Scripture teaches about Communion. Paul declared, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). He speaks as though coming together as a church is the same as coming together to take the Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-21). They cannot be divided. Communion is designed to unite us as one Body of one Lord, so why do we take it like we’re each only dealing with Christ personally? I would love to see churches take a hard look at how they do Communion. There are surely ways to drive home the corporate, fellowship side of the Christian table.
  • In Protestant circles, we should speak more freely about Christ’s presence in the Supper. I don’t think we need to accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view (often called “consubstantiation,” which most Lutherans disavow, or “sacramental union,” which most accept), or anything along those lines. But we need to be able to call the bread and wine—without any qualifications—Christ’s body and blood. We don’t need 10 minutes (or even 10 seconds) before each Communion saying, “Remember, this is just a symbol.” After all, right after John died the early Christians would write stuff like this:

    Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us…They abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.

    Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”

    Whatever we think about the details of how the Supper works, we should at least get this: Jesus is there, and we are nourished by His atoning sacrifice. And that should give us great joy.

  • The one loaf is far more appropriate than crackers. This ties in a lot with my first point, but it’s still different. Originally, it seems quite clear that Communion was observed with loaves of bread divided among the believers. This was definitely true when Jesus started the Supper during His last Passover meal. Now most of us use wafers, crackers, or stuff that is probably just edible styrofoam. Practically speaking, it makes sense that this would happen over time. But practicality isn’t the point of the sacraments. I think this development betrays the original purpose. If we break whole loaves together, it reinforces the united body element mentioned above (we all share the same loaves of bread) and the significance of Jesus’ body being broken for us. It picks up on the Biblical theme of meal-sharing in celebration before God. But again, I just have to go back to the point of the united body. The Didache, basically an introduction to Christianity for new converts written in the second century, makes the point in its Communion prayer. I’ll wrap up by quoting it:

    We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.

Three Thoughts on Communion

Life Is about the Trinity

In the wake of recent Trinitarian controversies on the Christian blogosphere, I’ve been given to some very interesting study on the topic of the Trinity. (If such controversy interests you, Alastair Roberts has been working on a round-up of the debate at Reformation 21.) I’m not going to bore you with much of it, even if I don’t find this boring at all, but I would like to offer some thoughts.

In my studies about the Trinity recently, I have been reminded of one crucial fact. This is ultimately what life is all about. By that I don’t refer to technical debates about the finer details of orthodox Trinitarianism. Rather, I mean coming to know God. And the true God is Trinity. As St. Gregory Nazianzen once said, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Yet this God who is Triune is the only God, the God who loves us, the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God for whom and from whom and to whom are all things, including our lives.

This is the subject which I have been thinking about lately. Life is about the Trinity. Life is about God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ, His only Son. It is about the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life. In all things, then, our faith calls us to bear in mind not just that there is a God, but that this God is Father-Son-Spirit. 

The struggle, however, is to see this not as a detail of Christian dogmatics. We must instead recall that this is the living reality of the God to whom we pray and whom we serve on a daily basis. In our devotion, in our prayers, in our walks before God and man we somehow must live out a Trinitarian reality. This can’t be merely abstract, of course. We must recognize in their individual ways the works and persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. We must live and worship accordingly.

But what does this look like practically? How do we will all of our life with the recognition that knowing the Triune God is the meaning of it? Ultimately, it requires intense training, constant reminders to ourselves of who God is. This is why Scripture leads the way for us by teaching us to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), by blessing us with the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13), by imploring us through Christ and the Spirit’s love to pray to the Father (Rom. 15:30). It is why in our churches many of sing a doxology which concludes with “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Many songs and hymns reflect such a structure. The Apostles’ Creed, which many churches recite each Sunday, is ordered around God the Father almighty, Jesus Christ His only Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In our personal lives, we would do well to consume as much of this as we can. Read Scripture and see the shape of the Father-Son-Spirit works and relations. Pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the Spirit. Acknowledge each of the members of the Godhead in your prayer and devotion every day.

Of course, one might still wonder. Can this really matter that much? But the truth is that it can. It does. For life is all about the Triune God, about knowing and worshiping Him. In fact, this vision of Father, Son, and Spirit is eternity, the destiny of the universe. Everything is from Him and to Him and for Him forever. Amen.

Life Is about the Trinity

Communion means Communion

Every Sunday (ideally) we who believe in Jesus Christ gather together to take His Supper. This meal we often call “Communion.” Yet it seems personally that too often we forget the significance of that name. There is a reason that we call Communion “Communion.” In this post I want to briefly explore that reason and offer some suggestions about how we can better honor it.

The word “Communion” reflects two aspects of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it refers to the way that we commune with Christ by taking His body and blood. When we eat the bread and drink the wine through faith, the Holy Spirit ushers us into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ, whose body and blood given for us gain us entrance into the divine glory. On the flip side of that, you could say that when we take the bread and wine the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Himself, His atoning body and blood, to us in a supernatural way. In Communion then we commune with Jesus, having sweet fellowship with God in Christ by the death which reconciles us to Him, represented in the real-symbol of bread and wine. On the Cross Jesus gave Himself for us, and we when recall that sacrifice in Communion He gives Himself to us.

That said, the aspect of communion with Christ the Supper is not my main focus in this post. For the most part, we are quick to pick up on at least something along these lines, and the way that we tend to do Communion shows that. But most of the time it seems to me that this is the only dimension of Communion we adequately capture. There is another, often neglected side, too. In Communion, we don’t just commune with Christ. We also commune with each other as His body. As we eat of Christ’s body in the Supper, we as the Church are formed into His one body ourselves.

Biblically, the Lord’s Supper is a meal which we share with each other in Christ. This meaning is the whole point of Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11. He starts off by referring to their taking Communion as when they “come together” (something I also think supports weekly Communion). Then he immediately starts condemning their internal divisions. When he says that they aren’t truly eating the Lord’s Supper, he says it is because “each one eats his own supper ahead of others.” And when he tells them what to do about it, he says they must “wait for one another.” The running theme is that the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion was divided and individualistic, but it was supposed to be a unified meal of a single body. Communion is meant to be something the members of the church do together as one people.

This dimension is also seen later in the same letter, when in chapter 10 Paul warns against participating in meals for worshipping idols. He draws this view idea of double communion—communing with the god in question and with the other people present—as applying in those cases. Here is what he says:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? 

1 Corinthians 10:14-18

Pay close attention to what Paul says here. On one hand, he tells us that eating a meal in the context of idol worship is a participation in that idol worship itself, just as Communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. This reflects the vertical aspect of the Supper, our Communion with God in Jesus Christ. Yet he also adds that “we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” This is the horizontal dimension I am highlighting. When we partake of a meal in worship of Jesus together, we are united as His one body. We are His one body because we share the one bread of His body.

This is something that the early Christians understood well. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, contains this Communion prayer:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

They got it. Communion is communion, both with Jesus and with each other. Our shared identity as those “in Christ” is bound up with our shared reception of His gift of Himself in His body and blood offered for us on the Cross and to us in Communion. We are people-who-receive-Jesus-together.

Now, this is all well and good to know, but I want to add something. It is not enough just to think of Communion as involving the unity of God’s people. We must also be sure to do Communion that way. So often in so many churches Communion is done otherwise. The focus in on individuals as they introspectively examine themselves and their personal relationship with Jesus before taking the bread and wine on their own. In some cases the focus is on families as they partake one group at a time. Yet this is a shared experience for all the Church, not just the local but the universal. We must be sure to remember that, and so when we do Communion, however the details, we should do it in a way that we can tell, feel, and know that we are in this together. One body receiving one body from one Lord. Amen.

Communion means Communion

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

My current reading project is The New Testament and the People of God by N. T. Wright. I hope one day to finish the entire series of which this is the first book, namely Christian Origins and the Question of God (for that matter, so does Wright). It’s been a very interesting study so far, covering the nature of literature and history, epistemology, Jewish history, the first century Jewish worldview, Christian history, and now the worldview of the first century Christians. An important part of studying worldviews is the study of praxis, what people in a group (in this case people within the mainstream first generation Church) do.

According to Wright, the distinctive elements of early Christian praxis could be summed up in a few major categories: mission, sacrament, worship, ethics, sacrifice, and martyrdom. In each of these areas, Christians were noticeably different from the rest of the world, which consisted basically of pagans and Jews. The gist of the differences is as follows:

  • Mission:
    The early church had evangelistic fervor. Unlike the pagans, the Christians spread their teachings with enthusiasm and love. They used their lives instead of legal decree to lead people to the truth. Unlike the Jews, who mostly kept their religion to themselves and frowned upon Gentiles, the Christians felt themselves compelled to persistently offer their good news to all the world.
  • Sacrament:
    The early Christians took baptism and Communion for granted. Every new convert was hastily baptized, and they regarded their baptisms as having significance to new creation and union with Christ. Every time they met (or nearly so) they partook of the Lord’s Supper together. No pagan rituals were anything like this. The Jews’ closest equivalents were baptizing Gentiles converts to Judaism, though it was never given the significance of Christian baptism, and Passover, which was a far more elaborate (and legally binding) ritual than the simple sharing of bread and wine.
  • Worship:
    The worship of Christians is perhaps the most distinctive point. The pagans worshipped very many gods and goddesses, one for almost every part of the natural and supernatural worlds. They also were legally obligated to worship Caesar. Jews, of course, worshipped only one God, Yahweh, and believed all other gods to be shams. Christians continued the Jewish tradition of worshipping one God alone, contrary to the pagans, but in a manner strange and scandalous to Jews included Jesus, a crucified carpenter/prophet from Nazareth, in the worship of their God, though at this time they didn’t explain exactly why or how that worked.
  • Ethics:
    Even secular historians who thought poorly of Christianity were astounded at the virtuous lives of the early Christians. They did not, like the pagans, engage in any kind of sexual immorality. They refused to lie or cheat or steal. Unlike many Jews, they demonstrated love, hospitality, and grace to people of every kind, even the worst of sinners or the lowest members of society. Any accusations made against Christians could only be against rumors of what they might do in secret, or against their dangerous doctrines. They character was generally impeccable.
  • Sacrifice:
    Possibly the strangest way that Christians were different for a religious group was how they handled sacrifice. Unlike both pagans and Jews, they never performed sacrifices, easily one of the most basic elements of religion at the time. They felt a need neither to satisfy pagan gods nor to continue participating in the Levitical priestly system. Instead, if they spoke of sacrifice at all, it was in reference to their Jesus dying for them, or of their own suffering for Him.
  • Martyrdom:
    Pagans saw no need to die for their faith. If anything, they worshipped their gods in order to be saved from death. The Jews had martyrs, but never so many as the Christians, who at times died almost daily. The Christians were noticed for the way they seemed to spit in death’s face, as though it had already been defeated.

In these ways, the Christians stood out blatantly from the rest of the world. They were nothing like the pagans, and their new message directly undermined mainstream Judaism. Indeed, their differences were so striking that they were by some classified as a totally new kind of people or race. You had Greeks, Jews, barbarians, and now Christians. 

This, of course, was right to be the case. We all know as Christians that God has called us to a new and different life than that of the world. We are holy, that is, set apart. We are the ekklesia, the called out ones. In a world of Gentile sinners and unbelieving Jews, we are the true Israel, the true humanity. God has redeemed the human race, and we are the firstfruits in Christ. The overlap between the kingdom of God and this present age is found in the Church. Therefore we ought to be different in very notable ways from those who are still in Adam, who have yet to experience God’s new life created in Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit.

So what is my point now? Upon reading the section on early Christian praxis in The New Testament and the People of God, I started thinking of ways that we can today still stand out in each of these categories. We are still God’s people, and still as such should be set apart. But how? I’d like to quickly run through some ideas based on what I’ve mentioned about the early church. We can, like our spiritual ancestors, be different in these ways:

  • Mission:
    The world today has many causes and missions. But your average people don’t think much about them. You don’t expect to meet any random person and find them on a mission to convince someone of this or accomplish that. When you do, it’s an exception, and usually thought of as weird. That last thing our culture condones is any kind of mission in personal, day-to-day interactions which says in any absolute terms, “What I have to say is for everyone, period. It’s not a matter of opinion. You won’t get away with ignoring or rejecting it.” Yet we are called to tell the whole world that Jesus is Lord, that He died and was raised for the sins of all people, and that He will return to right every wrong and heal the world with new creation. If we do this in our everyday lives and interactions, and yet also do it with love and grace instead of the stereotypical condemnation or Hellfire scare, we will stand out and people will notice that we have a unique message with a unique method.
  • Sacrament:
    If you ask people what they associate with church, you will rarely hear anything about baptism or Communion. Yet these rituals were defining for the early Christians, so much so that on the basis of their secret Communion meetings people accused them of cannibalism. We must learn to make baptism a big deal, so that no one will think of becoming a Christian apart from in Christ dying to sin and rising to Spirit-led life. To demand with the utmost seriousness a physical act of identification and commitment as the first step of a religion that’s actually not a cult will raise eyebrows and get noticed in our culture. With Communion, as well, if we make it our constant and weekly practice, investing it with both its proper sanctity and its vitality, then we will find that all church visitors or seekers will be confronted every time they come: you need Jesus’ body and blood, but you can’t share in these while you deny Him with word and/or deed. The need to repent and enter the loving community of those who do feast on Christ’s benefits will be evident and, again, strange to a world that’s all about including everyone.
  • Worship:
    As it stands, formal worship is not a part of the lives of most people in the world, so participating in Christian worship at all stands out some. Yet people expect this for churchgoers. What is required to actually stand out in worship is two-fold: we must let worship flood the rest of our lives, so that praise for the Creator and gratitude to our Redeemer is evident in all we say and do. We must also be different in what we refuse to worship: we cannot let politicians, musicians, actors, speakers, authors, government, business, or anything or anyone else own our allegiance or affections.
  • Ethics:
    To stand out in ethics, we have a lot to do. The world thinks of itself as good. Part of what we must do as God’s restored humanity is live our lives so blamelessly and virtuously that we prove them wrong. This will mostly take the form of everyday details. While of course on larger matters like abortion and homosexuality, we stand out, these are not what make us stand apart in ways that are really valuable. The ways which count most are small. Don’t gossip at the water cooler. Don’t try to cheat anyone, or lie about all the things people think it’s okay to lie about. Don’t flatter to the face or curse behind the back. Don’t speak in vulgar ways. Don’t try to get any revenge, or hold grudges, or even just mention that you hope someone “gets what’s coming to them.” If you disagree with someone, make sure any discussion includes clarity and charity. Don’t accuse people who disagree with you of anything without doing research from their side. Don’t demonize people. Be hospitable. Welcome strangers into your home (that one in particular stands out these days). Love everyone all the time. Participate in culture while refusing to take part in the sins involved. All these little differences add up and can make us a peculiar people.
  • Sacrifice:
    Nowadays, in mainstream society no one performs animal sacrifices. So how do we stand out? Two ways come to mind. First, our society believes that we must make personal sacrifices, doing special good, to atone for our sins. We must sacrifice for forgiveness. That people believe this is clear enough if you watch any TV. We must respond with a resounding “No!” and proclaim that forgiveness is accomplished exclusively through Jesus. The other point is that people of the world offer lots of sacrifices in their daily lives which we must not take part in. People sacrifice all the time with their families to make money. When they get the money, they sacrifice their means of blessing others on the altars of the gods Technology and Luxury. Some people sacrifice their children to the goddess Fame by passing them through the fire of the entertainment industry. They sacrifice their marriages for the sake of personal fulfillment. To appease the wrathful god of Sexual Liberation, they sacrifice their bodies and hearts to people they know should not have them. All of these sacrifices, and more, made in worship of money, the American Dream, education, progress, autonomy, sex, or self-expression—we must refuse to participate in any such rituals. When we do, we will be noticed. Indeed, our society still worships the same gods as the Greeks did; they just call them by their normal names—sex, alcohol, wealth, etc.—instead of Aphrodite, Dionysus, or Plutus. And just like the Greeks did, people today think it is awfully strange when others don’t worship them as well.
  • Martyrdom:
    Martyrdom has always been unusual, so it remains one of the most powerful ways to stand out. Yet American Christians do not usually show the same spite of death that the early Christians were known for. Most still take great pains to make sure they stay healthy and whole. And to some extent this makes sense. We don’t live where you can be persecuted just for being a Christian. Yet our victory over death in Jesus must still be made known, because the watching world deals with death every day. So what we need are Christians willing to risk their lives and bodies by going on dangerous foreign missions, or even just living in dangerous parts of our own society. Christians who penetrate both hostile nations and American ghettos, who risk their lives both to take Bibles to Koreans and to help inner city youth escape crime and gangs. Those of us who are guaranteed a good resurrection by the Spirit must take advantage of this hope to accomplish the most risky ministries, and help everyone in need. Both in the evangelistic and in the socially beneficial, we ought to stick out our necks. Hanging out with people with serious, contagious diseases so they can know love and grace? That should be our work. Taking down violent criminal organizations and leaders? Who better to do that than men whose God told them to seek justice and then promised to raise them from the dead?

I hope by this point I’ve said at least something you may find helpful (goodness knows I’ve written quite a bit). If I’ve learned anything by studying the early church, it’s that Christians stood out like bright lights in dark places. Yet most modern American Christians (myself included more or less) seem to fit in well enough with our culture, sitting in the tidy little box of what the wider world thinks Christians are allowed to look like. I pray we will not stay this way, but that God by His Spirit will lead us all on to new things, so that we may be the light of the world as He has called us to. In Jesus name, amen.

 

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

“Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” This kind of talk is naturally a common part of church life, especially in the more energetic places. And that is good. When we are loved by so great a God and called into His service, for us to offer what Scripture calls a “sacrifice of praise” to Him is only fitting. To God be glory forever! Amen.

Yet sometimes this seems to be the only glory we feel the need to offer our Lord. And while this often can be sincere and heartfelt, glorifying God this way can be something else, too. Praise with our words can be all too easy and comfortable, requiring no real commitment or action. No matter how loftily we speak of God, or how much we call others to worship Him, we can do this all as merely an outward religion, either for show and glory or maybe even just to tide over our own conscience as it tells us to think beyond ourselves.

Beyond this, maybe we’ll read God’s word or pray to Him. We might even make an excellent habit of both, though most of us don’t. Even if we do, how easy is it to simply use these disciplines to fulfill the demands of religion on our conscience, so that we don’t feel guilty? Personal communion with God is rich and vital, but is also so intangible, so invisible, that we can easily just pretend or use “devotion” for our own purposes.

Really, doing piety—respect of God—is easy if we see God as a distant figure, a big and separate Deity a million light-years away, whom we can keep happy with our exalted speech, dedicated devotions, and constant prayers. Even though we usually wouldn’t admit or even realize this tendency, we often look at God this way. That can lead us to taking devotional activities—good activities that are God-blessed and right—as a kind of checklist righteousness which calms our conscience’s demand for higher living.

But our God is not that distant Deity. He is not a king who lives aloft from his kingdom, content to see his subjects give him due honor and taxes. Our God is the King who acts like a member of His own kingdom. He cares for and identifies with everyone under His rule, treating them as though they matter more than He does. This Lord is love. He’s so invested in the people beneath Him that He actually became one of them. He lived, died, and rose again as a human being for human beings. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us brothers and sisters, since He has become like us in every way, except without sin.

Because of this, there is no possible way to glorify God if you aim exclusively for His direct and immediate glory. God has bound Himself to humanity in Christ. In His covenant with us, He is happy to be “man’s God” and to share His own life for our benefit. This means that He is deeply invested in the situation of all people. As we know from the parable of the sheep and the goats, He identifies with us so closely that He counts what we do for others as what we do for Him. He counts what we do not do for others as ignoring Him. So to glorify God we have to treat the people He loves with the same great importance that He does.

Since God is so invested in love with people, and since people bear His image, we cannot glorify Him without being interested in people. Praising the Creator means nothing if we curse people He created. Prayers to our heavenly Father are insulting to Him if we refuse to speak with our earthly fathers He gave His only Son for. Dedicating ourselves to serving Christ’s church is a lie if we are too selfish to serve everyone Christ died for.

To sum it all up, God freely chose to create us, make a covenant with us, become one of us, live for us, die for us, rise for us, and delay His coming for us, all so that He could share His eternal life of love with us. If this is truly God’s passion in history, then in order to truly honor Him, worship Him, and give Him the glory He so richly deserves, we absolutely have to share that passion and devote ourselves to the same cause He champions. To glorify God, we must love human beings.

Back to my original point, though, this is a very hard task. Loving others is a radical way that actually honors the time and effort God puts into people is terrifying and exhausting. So what do we naturally do? We substitute what God say fulfills His whole law—to love your neighbor—with just the basic stuff that is easy to do to an invisible God. We skip caring for other people—which James says is the heart of pure religion—and substitute inexpensive sacrifices of praise, Scripture, Facebook shares, and prayer. But Jesus said to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So we should continue to rightly worship our glorious God. We should never stop praising and communing with Him in song, prayer, and devotion. But we also have to radically and completely love our neighbor. That is what fulfills the law. We must insist on doing the latter despite its difficulty, without neglecting the former. For this is what Jesus taught us Himself. Amen.

Glorifying God the E-Z Way