Stop “Advancing the Kingdom” Now!

What exactly do we mean when we say our purpose is to “advance the kingdom”? I think we are reaching for a way to say we want to participate in God’s kingdom but often I hear what is synonymous with advancing our own interest or organization which, of course, naturally, we believe to be completely in line with and consistent with what God is doing in the world. But it is precisely this presumption that needs tempering.

In the New Testament, one does not “advance” the kingdom of God. As the parable of the sower illustrates.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26–29 NIV)

True, the farmer does his part, but as the parable makes clear growth  is a rather mysterious affair. And that is the way it always is with the growth or expansion of the God’s kingdom.

The Apostle knew this. In 1 Corinthians Paul explains clearly his role in advancing the kingdom of God:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 NIV)

Thus, the language of participation is more suitable to our role in the Kingdom of God—which after all is God’s domain. In the language of our text, we are God’s fellow workers, God’s partners—not a bad position, mind you. Together we might be said to advance the kingdom of God but truly it is God’s power that has always advanced his kingdom. In a sense, we are along for the ride though with a significant role, but we are not the advancers—the Spirit of God is— and we are more like the rear guard, or to mix metaphors, the harvesters. (Paul liked to mix his metaphors, too).

Ironically—given the way we sometimes speak about advancing the kingdom—the only time that the notion of “advancing” the kingdom appears in Scripture is when Jesus critiques those who seek to lay hold of that kingdom.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν) (Matthew 11:12 NIV)

Here it is the kingdom itself that is advancing forcefully, even violently, and it is violent people seeking to control it.

So if “advancing the kingdom” is a bit of an overshot, is there better language for talking about our relationship to the kingdom of God?

In scripture, the normative way of speaking of our relationship to the kingdom of God is through “entering” and “receiving.” This receiving and entering is to be done in the spirit and disposition of a little child—not a lot of “advancing the kingdom here, just the humble acceptance of God’s gracious move. For entering, see Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23–24; 21:31; 23:13; Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23–25; Luke 18:17, 24–25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; 19:8; for receiving, see Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Heb 12:28; 2 Pet 1:11.

So the next time you are tempted to say “advance the kingdom of God,” slow down a bit and ask “really?” Is this really what God is up to, or am I co-opting the kingdom to advance my ministry, organization, or mission?

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To Dream Again

All organizations and organisms have life cycles. Old churches have a different feel about them and new churches and churches in the prime of their ministry have that special something that seems to be missing from churches that have plataeued or are winding down. The same can be said of other institutions, including schools, hospitals, college, etc.

In the chart we have words that describe the various stages of an LifeCycleCurveorganization’s life cycle. New churches all begin with a dream. Even before the church formed, someone had a dream that a church was needed. Very quickly the new church orders itself around what it believes, goals were set, and appropriate structures were set in place to accomplish those goals. Within a few years, a church often finds itself doing the ministry the dreamers set out to do. This stage can last for many years but in time will become the “good ole days.”

If the leaders are savvy enough, they will sense when the church begins to lose its edge. And if they will help the church catch the vision again, or dream again, the church can experience many more years of full-fledged ministry.

However, most churches, in time, find themselves, slipping. One of the first signs is when it is easier to tell stories about what God use to do among us than to be excited about what God will do next. In time questioning and polarization sets in, and dropouts follows. Amazingly churches can exist in this semi-comatose state for years—until the money runs out or that last two people die. The Good News is that this does not have to be in the end of the story. Options include becoming a legacy churches that is willing to give their lives so others can dream, where the life cycle can begin again; or a church can choose to do the hard work of revitalization where they dream again.

While it is much easier to spur a church to dream again as they are coming off of a successful season of ministry, a church that has plataeued or declined can find new life—if they want it and will turn to God for it. And this is  key. The people, members of the church, must want to see their church live again with all their hearts. So if either of these are your story, I would love to hear from you.

So, join me. Let’s dream again.

What God Loves; What We Love

Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21

The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game.  Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.

However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were

1. John 3 16

2. Mary Lynn Rajskub

3. Windows 7 beta download

4. All inclusive vacations

5. Ana Ortiz

In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”

Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.

The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,

… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.

“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.

However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.

In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself,  to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)

Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.

But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.

So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!

However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.

In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.

The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?

Baptism, Temptation, Ministry

Reflection on the Lectionary Gospel Text for February 22, 2015: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So ends Mark’s introduction to his Gospel (1:1–15). Since I have covered the basic flow of Mark’s introduction elsewhere (http://wp.me/pkPXF-oV), I will begin here by noting that the first half of the introduction dealt with John’s work of preparing the way of the Lord. Now, beginning with v. 9, Mark turns his attention to the hero of his story, Jesus.

The briefness of some of Mark’s stories is startling not only because as readers we want to know more but also because of how much each mini-story contains. These stories, if they be called stories, are more like terse summaries. Tense, packed summaries, to be sure.

I have outline the flow of the stories in our text today as: Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry. There is a certain rhythm or flow here that is true of all who dare follow Jesus. Jesus is the prototype (model, exemplar) of all those who would follow him. Baptism, temptation, and ministry outlines the process through which God’s Spirit remakes and reshapes us into the image of Christ. While there is reason to read them in this order, the experience of baptism, temptation and ministry will be revisited often in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

Baptism. While Mark has already made a connection between the forgiveness of our sins and baptism, here, in this text about Jesus’ baptism, the focus is more on appointment and identity. Jesus is the chosen anointed one. Instead of the oil that was pour on the head of kings and prophets to recognize their calling, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. John has already clued us that Jesus would also be the one who would baptize others in the Holy Spirit. So in the same way God had anointed Jesus, Jesus would anoint others.

Sometimes when I baptize people, I say something like this: “Based on your confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When you rise from these waters, you can be sure of two things: your sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit has come to live within you.” The certainty of these words rest in the example of Jesus. All of us who accept the invitation to follow Jesus can be assured of God’s acceptance and God’s approval: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Soon, as with Jesus, so with us, our resolve will be tested. Through temptation we prove how deeply we believe the Gospel.

Temptation. Mark’s temptation story is so brief, particularly when compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s. Still Mark give enough to evoke the story of the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The evocative words are wilderness (or desert), forty days, tempted, wild beasts, and angels.

Mark point to the divine role that temptation plays in the process: the Spirit of God “drove” or “cast” (ἐκβάλλω) Jesus into the wilderness. Interesting word choice on Mark’s part. This is the word that is often used in the stories about Jesus “casting out” demons. When Matthew and Luke retold this story (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1), they softened the verb to “lead” instead of “cast.”

However, there are times in our lives as followers of Jesus, when we feel as if we have been thrown where we do not want to be. One should not minimize the reality of dark times those who chose to follow Jesus will experience but we, in time, learn how to embrace these as part of the journey. Each time we conquer temptation, our credibility increases as disciples of Jesus, and we learn to minister to other with greater depth.

Ministry. While the acts of ministry are many, the basic shape of Christian ministry is proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ message was simple and straightforward: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” However, woven into the very fabric of the proclamation is exactly what each of us need to hear to stay focused.

The center of the Good News is that the Kingdom of God has come near (see http://wp.me/pkPXF-pS). The Kingdom of God is the basis of our authority to do ministry in the name of Jesus. Or, said another way, we do ministry as representatives of the Kingdom of God.

However, also woven into the proclamation of the Kingdom is the humbling, lest we think to highly of ourselves as representatives of God’s kingdom. The proper response to hearing, really hearing, the message of the Kingdom is to repent and believe the Good News. Whether a beginner or a more mature disciple, the call is the same: repent and believe. And when we get off track as we will: repent, believe, repeat.

To repent is more than stop doing bad things. Rather it is a willingness to throw the whole of oneself before God and to submit to God’s will. It is an implicit confession that our ways are wrongs and that God’s ways are right. As we enter the season of Lent, we have a designated time to allow God’s Spirit to recalibrate our lives and bring them into alignment with the priorities of God’s kingdom. When we have repented, then we can truly believe (trust) in the Good News–which is nothing short of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 1:1).

So the movement of Christian discipleship involves baptism, temptation, and ministry. This was the model of Jesus. So as it was with Jesus, so let it be with us.

Reflecting on Pentecost

Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”

Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.

Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…

Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.

All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.

All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”

All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.

May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!

Disciples are Learners

Disciples are, or should be, by definition learners. Beyond the denominational tag, Disciples should be disciples. When Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission, his marching orders to the church was to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19-20) Trying to find the right English word to translate the word mathētēs is not easy. Some attempts include student, pupil, trainee, or the like. Each of these fall short because these words tend to stress book-learning over character formation. They are good translations, but like many translations, none of them can catch the full nuance of the original word. A word I think comes closer is apprentice.

Once a common practice for a young person wanting to learn a trade or craft, an apprenticeship was very serious internship. As an apprentice, a young person would attach herself to a master artisan to become, in terms of that skill, just like the master. At one time, ministers were trained much in this way. A young person would attach himself to an accomplished minister to learn from that minister. In both of these previous examples, the young person would often live with the master and his family. In a similar way Jesus trained his first followers who lived, ate, slept and traveled with him. At the heart of being a disciple, then, is being close enough to the master teacher to become like that person.

Learning however was never limited to information. Rather learning was about transformation. The goal of being a disciples of Jesus is not just to learn what he can teach us about God and good living but to become more like him. Jesus once said to his followers, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). Loving one another goes way beyond mere information. The pivotal question for disciples of Jesus is not “What do we know?” but “What kind of people are we?

One can hear this concern in the apostle Paul as he was working Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”(Gal 4:19). Or again, in his letter to the Colossians: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ”(Col 1:28). Or perhaps, what Paul tells the Christians in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect(Romans 12:1–2).

Many other texts could be cited but these show how discipleship is about the kind of people we are becoming because of God’s work on our lives. Genuine discipleship is about spiritual formation. Robert Mulholland in Invitation to the Journey (1993) defines Christian spiritual formation this way: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s spirit, for the transformation of the world.” And Dallas Willard adds,“spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God.

Disciples then are transforming learners, that is, attentive apprentices learning the way of Jesus. I’m grateful to be part of a church family committed to learning the way of Jesus.

Copied from my article at http://www.fcchammond.org/APROUTLOOK2013.aspx.

Re-Dis-Orientation

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has devised a simple but deep way to categorize the Psalms that has real applicability to life. He suggests that most psalms will fall in one of the following three categories: Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. While wordy, perhaps, these labels are very helpful in understanding life. In some Psalms life is good and as it should be, in others psalms life is chaotic, hard, and confusing, and in yet other psalms life is experienced as new beginning, renewal, and moving beyond. Sometimes all three of these can show up in the same psalm, as with Psa 23. The Biblical story resounds with this rhythm. Notice the following examples:

Exodus:           Egypt ➤ Wilderness ➤ Promised Land

Exile:                           In the Land ➤ Exiled in Babylon ➤ Return to the Land

Jesus:                                      Life ➤ Death and Burial ➤ Resurrection

Christians                                            Old Life ➤ Repentance ➤ New Life

What is common to all of these stories is the movement through orientation, disorientation, and into reorientation. Also common is that no one really likes being in the middle phase of disorientation.

William Bridges, in an insightful little book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes, points out that all transitions in life have three basic phrases: the “old,” the “new,” and the “in-between,” this last one Bridges himself calls the “neutral zone.” The old is when life is what life is and we are not complaining because it’s normal. Then something will happen, a death, a divorce, a new opportunity, which changes our old comfortable world. The in-between is uncomfortable because it is no longer the “old,” but neither is it quite yet the “new.” However, this neutral zone of disorientation can be just what we need to grow, to come to new understandings, to get out of old ruts, etc. For some this in-between time can be excruciatingly painful. But often disorientation, in time, gives way to reorientation: a death becomes sweet memories; a loss gives way to new gains; and that which was old is given new life.

Personally, I have found thinking of life in terms of these three categories helpful. I experience life sometimes, as it should be. Things are in place. Life is good. Psalm 23 is true and the Lord really is my shepherd. However, sometimes, and more times than I would like perhaps, life is hard, disconnected, chaotic. With Psalm 23 I walk through the deepest, darkest valley. I don’t like those times but I do usually grow closer to God through them. Then disorientation gives way to new life and I find, again with Psalm 23, a table prepared before me, my head anointed and my cup full, desiring nothing more than to live in God’s house forever.

Lent is the perfect time to reflect on this. Lent is the “neutral zone” between Advent and Resurrection Sunday. You therefore might find the language of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation useful even now.

For further reading, see Walter Brueggemann’s Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994) and Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: De Capo, 2004).

Copied from http://www.fcchammond.org/MAROUTLOOK2013.aspx.