To Begin Again

Can a person really start over?

Isn’t there always baggage?

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change?

The cynic in me wants to see real change as impossible but I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this is the case. No doubt, life is tough and for some and at times really tough. Yet the Bible, which has been around a lot longer than I have, holds out a vision of humanity that has potential. New things can happen!

For example, notice this medley of verses:

[The Lord] put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God (Psalms 40:3); See, I [the Lord] am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43:19); Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant ….” (Jeremiah 31:31); Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) … what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15).

The Apostle Paul invited the church at Colossae (in modern day Turkey) to enter into God’s newness. In the third chapter of his letter to that church, Paul points to three areas in which God wants to renew us.

First, God invites us to renew our orientation, to seek what is heavenly, not earthly. Sometimes we live as if the minutia of every moment is the most important issue in our lives. We all—at times—are drama queens. We fail to see that in a few short moments most of what  upset us now will not really matter in the grand scheme of things. However, the Apostle is not just suggesting that we get a better mental attitude; this is not how to think your way into a better way of feeling.

The invitation is for complete reorientation. Because we have been baptized into Christ, we now “seek the things above” and we do this because “Christ is there!” Now, as those united with Christ, we are, in some sense, already with him. Imagine living now as if we were already living in heaven.

Next God calls us to reevaluate our identity. In a (religious) world intent on reminding us often that we are sinners (and we are), the Bible most often strikes another note. In this text, believers in Jesus are those who are hidden in Christ, those who have put on the new self that, according to the Apostle, “is being renewed by the knowledge according to the creator’s image.” Our new identity is not defined by religious or socioeconomic labels but by Christ. Therefore, believers should see themselves as God sees them: as specially chosen, holy and deeply loved.

Consequently, God invites to refresh our way of life. Continuing the language of baptism, Paul reminds us to “put to death” dispositions, habits and tendencies that simply do not belong to heaven-minded people. The laundry list is long and dirty: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, “since” as Paul adds, “you have taken off your old self with its practices.”

Continuing the baptismal image, Paul is confident that believers have “put on” the new self and the associated dispositions, habits, and tendencies. These virtues include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, telling the truth, speaking wholesome words, love, unity, peace, and thankfulness.

In summary, Paul is not inviting his readers to embrace the power of positive thinking, but rather of taking hold of a completely different paradigm for reality. The primary feature of this new paradigm is that we are now united with Christ. This union with Christ instigates certain new realities, namely, that we are now “hidden in Christ.” The changes called for grows out of a relationship with Christ. If one belongs to Jesus, then it follows that such a person would think differently about who they are. This, then, would (naturally) lead believers to put off things that work against their new identity and to put on attributes that are consistent with that new identity.

Can a person really start over? Yes, with Jesus they can.

Isn’t there always baggage? Yes, but God can handle your baggage.

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change? Only if you so choose; it is not the way of Jesus.

Also published at http://www.fcchammond.org/JANNEWSLETTER.aspx.

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Only Two Ways

In an age of too-many options—too many cable channels, too many brands, too many things—I’m not sure we can believe there are really only two ways when it comes to life. Now I would be quick to add that there is lots of variety within each of these ways, but would still contend with the wisdom of the past that there are only two ways to live and one leads to life and the other, destruction.

Jesus, when speaking about living in the kingdom, taught there were only two ways, one broad and wide, the other narrow and tight; he even said that only a few folks find the nar-row path of the kingdom of God. His longest-living disciple John wrote about the “two ways” to point followers of Jesus within the way of life, not death. Later, an early Christian document called the Didache (Or, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), begins, “There are two ways…” then repeats much from the Sermon on the Mount.

However, way before even Jesus, Psalms and Proverbs employed the “two ways.” For example, the first Psalm does this with poetic flair.

In Psalm 1, there are only two kinds of people: the righteous and the wicked. There is no gray here. Life here comes only in black and white. We, with all our options, bristle at the no-tion but deep down most people are willing to admit that one can live either wisely or fool-ishly.

The Psalmist describes the righteous in three main moves. The righteous does not keep bad company, is devoted to God’s law, and is fruitful as a tree by a river. Conversely, the wicked will not be found in good company (when it really counts), doesn’t care about God’s law (notice that this should be vs. 4 ½ but the psalmist is silent on this point), and is like fruitless chaff from the wheat harvest.

The psalm ends with a final contrast showing God’s perspective: God is attentive to those in the path of righteousness but the way of the wicked can only lead to destruction.

The Psalms were the songbook of ancient Israel. So I think we should give notice that the first song in the book contains instructions for wise living. Is there a connection to be made here? Perhaps it is that worship has something to do with the kind of people we are become. If that is the case, then let me ask you once again to consider: there are only two ways. Pick carefully, ok?

Sabbath

What is the relationship between the following words: rest, cease, and seven? They all relate to the biblical notion of Sabbath, however, in the Hebrew of the Old Testament the relationship is even tighter since the each of these words are all based on the same root word. So throughout the Old Testament they form something of a word-play. The word “rest” sounds like the word “seven” which sounds like the word “Sabbath.”

With this in mind, God created the world in six days and on the seventh day rested or ceased from his labor. Later God will declare the seventh day a holy day and a day of rest for his people. This notion is so important that it finds a place in the Ten Commandments. In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, Sabbath grows out of in God’s creative activity:

For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (20:11 NIV).

However, in Deuteronomy’s version, Sabbath is more closely tied to the Israelites release for hard labor:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (5:15 NIV).

Jesus himself focuses the purpose of Sabbath-keeping more clearly, when he states,

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27–28 NIV).

In short, Jesus will clarify what should have already been clear. Humans need Sabbath and God instituted Sabbath for the good of humanity.

Later in the Bible, Sabbath becomes a way of talking about heaven. The writer of Hebrews teaches us,

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9–10 NIV).

This serves as a word of encouragement for us to hang in there to the end.

Still, we need Sabbath now. Increasingly, in our culture today, Sabbath is hard to come by. The time when we reserved Saturday or Sunday for worship and family time is gone. Therefore, Christians need more discipline at getting away from the hustle of every-day life. The work will be there when you get back and the benefits of Sabbath include clearer thinking, a stronger connection with God, and a calmer presence when we return to our work.

Our Role in the Mission of God

A favorite New Testament book of mine is 1 Peter. I’m drawn to it often because the world it imagines is so much like the one I experience. In this letter, Christians are called to live as a contrast society to the world around them. The world around the Christians consisted of an evil empire, many forms of idolatry, and wild parties every weekend, if not every night.

Living among people committed to empire, idolatry, and indulgence, the author of 1 Peter commissioned his readers with these words:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11–12 NIV)

Framing our relationship to the world, even empire, as “aliens and strangers,” the writer reminds us that we are “only passing through” this world, but more so, since Jesus’ kingdom does not belong to this world, neither do we. If we are indeed “aliens and strangers” to the empires of this world, we should not over-invest in them but rather give much more attention to the kingdom that will never end.

The biblical writer calls on his readers to do two things. 1) Give attention to spiritual formation; and 2) live out that formation among those who live around us. Regarding the first task, God seeks to remove the war within our own lives. Therefore, we should “abstain from sinful desires.” However, there is the second and larger concern here: That our lives (now at peace because of Jesus) might announce the kingdom of God to those who might even accuse us falsely. The end result of our lives, according to this text, is that others might be prepared to worship God when he comes again.

So let’s commit again to live the good life for the good of others.

The Disappearance of Sin

It has been a long time coming, but I think we can safely say that “sin” is hardly a functional concept in our culture. As early as 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger published a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? In this book he explores why “sin” became obsolete. He promises

… to review the events in the recent rapid decline and disappearance of the word “sin,” not because any particular word is so important in itself, but because its obsolescence may be a clue to fundamental changes in the moral philosophy of our civilization (p. 27).

While the world has lost the notion, the Bible retains a rich vocabulary for sin (at least ten words in the OT alone). The Hebrew word most commonly used for sin in the OT means “to miss the mark.” When use of archery, the word referred to missing the target. In religious contexts, the word described actions which fell short of some divine standard or goal. Paul picks up this image in the famous passage from Romans:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22–24)

There are several other passages that get close to defining sin in the NT as well. For example, Paul writes later in Romans: “…and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) which touched on doing something about which a person is unsure. The apostle John will identify sin as “lawlessness” and “unrighteousness” (1 John 3:4; 5:17).

The problem with sin is not so much the inappropriate behavior (which can be more or less serious due to the consequences) but how it functions to keep us away from God. The longer we are away from God, the less clearly we can think about our sin. Therefore, it is important for the church to remember that we have been called to “interfere” in the lives of sinners. Paul said it this way: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).

Whatever the world does with the notion of sin . . . it will remain in the church’s vocabulary. When we totally lose the vocabulary of sin, we will have finally arrived at the place where no one is responsible for anything.

And the Greatest of These is Grace

Recently Fox News personality Brit Hume suggested on national TV that fallen golf giant Tiger Woods abandon Buddhism and embrace Christianity. Hume reasoned that Christianity allows for forgiveness and redemption, concepts not at home in Buddhism. Hume added that as a Christian Tiger could start over, find forgiveness, and possibly reconcile with his wife and children.

While such a move on Tiger’s part would seem to be self-serving, the suggestion is not unlike what the Bible actually says. The apostle Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians paints a picture not unlike where Tiger finds himself. Lives without Jesus are empty: we were dead in our sins, following the ways of evil, and chasing after our passions and desires.

BUT—so begins the scandal of biblical Christianity in v. 4. In a decisive reversal of fate, so to speak, God acted. After all, God had to act; we could not. We were dead. God intervenes because he is “rich in mercy” and loves us despite our deadness.

This is a hard notion to embrace and so I can understand why most non-Christians misunderstand what is meant by salvation—because most Christians don’t really get it either. Salvation is not based on human action or worth.

It really is a free gift. Therefore, it is not like a home which I “own” but which I will spend the next 25 to 30 years paying off. And because it is a free gift, it has some of the embarrassments that are normally attached to free gifts.

For example, if someone gave me a free suit, I would be appreciative to be sure, but I would be uncomfortable wearing the suit to an event where I knew the giver would be present. I would be even more self-conscious if everyone in the room knew about the suit.

Also I would be bit suspicious. I would wonder what did the suit-giver want from me? Are there any strings attached? I would want to somehow pay back in some way the one who gave me the suit.

Furthermore, like all free gifts, it can be misused. The free suit, continuing our analogy, should probably not be worn to work on the car or to mow the yard. Nor would it be fitting to speak evil of the one who gave the suit especially while wearing it.

Anyway, analogies generally break down so I will not push this one too much more, but the point is clear: a free gift can be misunderstood. Yet, endure one more point: the acceptance of the gift is never seen a meritorious act on the part of the recipient.

Salvation, says Paul, depends on God’s initiative. Using resurrection language, Paul announces that God has made us alive, raised us, and seated us in a position of power—notice the threefold “with Christ/him.” Thus, what God did for his Son, he does for those who believe in the Son—for the sake of his Son (see Eph 1.20).

Paul beautifully simplifies the profound nature of God’s saving work in the formula: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Grace is what God has done; faith is our acceptance of what God has done; and works or deeds grow out of the dynamic interaction of the first two. Paul stresses salvation is not the result of human work or people really could say they saved themselves.

However, there is room for human effort—one can reach out and receive the suit, so to speak—if human effort is kept in its proper place.

Grace, Faith, Works. That must be the proper order.

However, the key note is grace. Grace is the engine that drives both faith and works. To misquote Paul just a bit: Now there remains three great truths: grace, faith, and works. But the greatest of these is grace.

When a person comes to God (or returns to him), it is like starting over or, as Paul says, being recreated. However, the end result of being recreated is that we become people, who like God, do good works which is precisely why God created us in the first place: to live as God would live for the sake of others.

So what do you think? Should Tiger become a Christian to deal with his mistakes? Should you?

So That — Outcomes of God’s Mission

Almost any place you look in the Bible, you can find God’s mission to form a distinct people. In the Old Testament, God formed the nation of Israel to bear witness to God’s continuing creative work in the world.

In the New Testament, in the ministry of Jesus and later the ministry of the church, the mission of God remains central. God’s purpose remains forming a distinct people to live a God-shaped life for the sake of the world. The mission of God stands out even in the little letter called 1 John.

Emphasizing that God’s love has been lavished on beleaguered believers, the apostle John points at several outcomes, or “so thats” that result from God’s active mission. These “so thats” are somewhat veiled in English translation, so I would like to draw these out for you.

God’s Mission through Jesus was so that:

  • We should be called the children of God (1 John 3:1)
  • Jesus might take away our sins (3:5)
  • Jesus might destroy the work of the devil (3:8)
  • We might believe in his name (3:23)
  • We might love one another (3:11, 23)

That God, the God of the universe, should invite us into a relationship is amazing. Not only is God willing to claim us as his children but we increasingly become to look like our Father. As God’s children we have the same inheritance as his rightful Son. The apostle here promises that we will see Jesus because we will become like him (3:2).

Part of the process of getting us to the place where we look like Jesus is that God must deal with sin. The NIV adds “our” before the word sin, but this is not in the original. It is not just personal sin that God must remove but even cosmic sin, so to speak. Sin can also be seen as a force at work in our world; sometimes we call it evil.

Sin is the Bible’s word for that power at work in our world that causes things to fall apart. Thus, John aptly asserts that Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil. While people today may not easily buy into a real devil and may even scoff at the notion of sin: they know the effect of this evil, whether personal or diabolical—relationships that don’t work, innocent people suffering, countries vying for power by diminishing others, loneliness, drug addictions, and this list could go on.

Yet, because God has acted, we believe in the name of Jesus—that for Jesus sake, new possibilities can emerge. Thoughtful Christians are not oblivious to the fact that we live in a world that appears hopelessly broken. It is precisely against this brokenness that Jesus makes sense.

And in the midst of this brokenness, you still find groups of Jesus-followers who love one another. This, perhaps, is the greatest testimony that God is completing the mission he started.