The Continuing Conversion of the Church

Church is suppose to be the place (people?) of new life, but so often we experience it as the place of old habits—both personally, because our habits are rarely challenged, and, corporately, because “running” the church trumps “being” the church. Furthermore, in so many places, saving the church has replaced the church’s mission of saving the world. Many have commented on the malaise found in the churches today.

For example, Darrell Guder in a book entitled The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) charts how the church came to be in this place. In sum, it has to do with the church’s confusion between church member recruitment and making disciples. After years of recruiting members to maintain the institution of church, there should be no surprise that Jesus’ call on our life sounds strange and demanding.

Guder further suggests that most ministers should first focus on the conversions of the church before embarking on the mission of converting the world. Rob Bell may be right that “God wants to save Christians, too.”

Back in the colonial period of American history, a revivalist preacher named William Tennant had the nerve to preach a sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” which was aimed at ministers of established church who had exchanged comfortable salaries for preaching the way of Jesus. Of course, there was a considerable backlash—but that is the way it is for prophets, right?

It may be the time for the sermon “The Dangers of an Unconverted Church.”

So what is the path forward? It really is quite simple. Be re-converted. God’s goal is to transform each of us to the image of Jesus. While there are instantaneous moments along the way, Jesus usually works through the ordinary and mundane tasks of life. However, for those who like steps, Jesus began his ministry with these action words: Repent (for the kingdom of heaven is near); Believe (the good news); and Follow (me). And when we get off track: Repeat.

I’m ready to begin again. Are you?

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Do I Have a Witness?

Several times in his letters, Paul will give a personal reflection or testimony (as he does in Ephesians 3:1-13). There are several aims for why Paul would use a personal testimony.

First, it bridges the gap between Paul and his readers. In effect, Paul not only invites the readers to participate in his story but his story also serves as an exemplar of how God’s story frames our individual stories. Simply, God did this in my life; he can also do it in yours.

Second, by showing that God is actively involved in his life, it become more real. This is not just theory (though, in the Ephesians reading there is plenty of that). What God has done is actualized in the life of a real person such a Paul.

Finally, Paul will use testimony to give context to what might be an embarrassment in Paul’s story (see Eph 3:13). Paul is in prison; he is suffering. This does not square well with resurrection power that Paul had so confidently announced earlier (see Eph 1:19-20; 2:4-6).

When the chips are down is where the “theory,” or more accurately the “theology” part comes in. God has already acted; what that means is not yet fully clear. In this text, Paul believes that what God put into motion in the past was becoming a reality in Paul’s ministry.

Those formerly excluded from God’s people are now invited in. The big story in Paul’s testimony is that God was using him to announce that non-Jews (Gentiles) are now co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in God’s promise (Eph. 3:6).

Paul has a testimony because his ministry is to announce this move of God. Paul understands that through him God is setting something big in motion—the implication of which were not yet visible.

This “not yet” part of God’s plan is bigger than we usually think or teach. It involves not just history (see “ages” in Eph 3:9) but future ages (see Eph 2:7). What God is up to is cosmic, universal and eternal—not just personal and individual.

Yet, God has called the church, the people of God, to be the instrument through whom God will announce his wisdom (Eph 3:10). This not merely evangelism, either, since the ones hearing the announcement from the church are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” or angelic and demonic forces at work in our world. This is where our story ties with Paul.

We are that church and we have, as the text says, access to God. Thus we can walk in boldness and confidence through faith in him even when the circumstances around us suggest otherwise.

When we do this, we too have a testimony.

Can I have a witness?

Tear Down This Wall!

In 1987, President Reagan challenged the Russian leader: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity … Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Walls are rarely good things. They are usually marked with signs saying: “Keep out!”

Such a sign was discovered in 1871. It marked the boundary of the temple in Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed it in AD 70; it warned non-Jews that they could not enter.

Let no foreigner enter within the partition and enclosure surrounding the temple. Whoever is arrested will himself be responsible for his death which will follow.

Quite a few words to say, “Keep out!”

In the book of Acts, Jewish opponents of Paul charged that his gentile friends had violated this boundary (see Acts 21:27-28). They had not of course, but no wonder Paul found the demolishing of every wall separating Jews and Gentile to be central to the mission of God (Eph 2.11-21).

While Paul probably has this temple boundary in mind, the real wall is whatever divides God’s people from one another. In this case, the biggest divide among the ancient Christians would have been this Jewish-Gentile divide. So, if God has removed the biggest wall imaginable to a first century Christian, what does that say about any of our lesser divides?

Jesus, according to Paul, tore the wall down. Outsiders—formerly known as those without Christ, aliens to God’s people, and strangers to God’s promises, people with no hope and no God—are now invited to join God’s people. Jesus in giving his life paved the way for outsiders to become insiders. What Jesus did on the cross now creates equal access to God. So now the outsiders are no longer strangers or aliens, but full citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s household.

Moreover, there is no longer the recognition of two groups but one group who are joined together to form one new temple. It is fitting then that this text should end with an image of a single temple, don’t you think?

Formerly the insiders denied admittance to those who were outsider. Now, together, hand-in-hand, the two have come together to form a holy temple where God lives.

So if God through Jesus can remove the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, what should we do to the lesser walls we sometimes construct in the life of the church between ins and outs, rich and poor, African-American and Caucasian, males and females, young and old, and so forth?

And the church said, “Tear down this wall!”

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?

In on God’s Plan?

I can answer that question in only one sentence. Well, it’s not really my answer. I find it in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. However, the sentence is a long one as it begins in 1:3 and goes through v. 14. Most English translations will break this into smaller sentences since English does not bear the weight of the original well.

Not only is this a very complex sentence, the content is some of the richest in the entire Bible. The text (1:3-15) takes the form of a synagogue blessing. Paul begins this letter with a call to worship that blesses God for blessing us with all spiritual blessings.

In what follows some of those blessing are enumerated with potent verbs: God chose us (v. 4); he predestined us (v. 5); and he freely gave or bestowed his grace on us (v. 6) because of Jesus.

But more so, he chose us with particular outcomes in mind: he chose us to be holy and blameless and he predestined us to be adopted as his children. In other words, God has called us into a certain kind of life, a different way of living, that is, to live like God would live.

Paul further describes in 1:7-11 what it means to have God’s grace poured on us. Thus we have what the Bible calls “redemption.” This means that the world no longer has a claim on us, God has “bought us back” so we now belong to him to live out his purpose.

Furthermore, we now know that our sins, faults, and trespasses are forgiven because of God’s rich grace. Yet, Paul pushes us beyond an individualistic reading of the text; he forces us beyond the capacity of human imagination. As believers in Jesus, we now have an inside track on what God is up to. God’s plan includes the entire universe, not just individual humans. It involves pulling the broken universe (whether in heaven or earth) back together again (see v. 10). Paul is insistent that it is because of Jesus that all of this is possible.

Thus, in this context of God’s cosmic plan, we are “heirs” invited to participate in reclaiming the world for all that is good and right. We can be sure we are heirs because God has given us the symbol of the future. The Holy Spirit “seals us” or marks us as heirs, as those who belong especially to God.

While this passage is a long and winding text, the point is simple: God had a plan, Jesus made it possible, and the Holy Spirit guarantees it . . . and . . . as believers in Jesus we are not only a part of God’s mission but participants in it.

God’s Partners in God’s Mission

While I am certain that we should see ourselves as working for God, I’m amazed and humbled by apostle Paul’s insistence that we work with God, more as a partner than an employee or even a slave. In one place, Paul will assert that he is among “God’s fellow workers” and that those benefiting from his and other’s ministry are “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3.9).

In another place, Paul will talk about how his ministry is not based on his competency but on a kind of competency that comes from God (2 Cor. 3.5). Even more, Paul will root Christian ministry in sharing or participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus any suffering we might experience in ministry is like Christ’s own giving of his life for the sake of others (see 2 Cor. 4.7-12).

Therefore, in partnership with God, Christian ministry is a participation in the mission of God. God’s mission is nothing short of inviting people into a relationship with God that will shape them into a distinct people who live their lives for the sake of others.

Another way to frame God’s mission is that God seeks all people to become re-connected with or reconciled to him. God then recreates us in the image of Jesus to become agents of reconciliation and healing. This is based not on our competency—since even we needed help to become reconciled.

However, once reunited with God, we are initiated into God’s own project of healing the world. Paul calls us “Christ ’s ambassadors.” This is fitting language as we now belong to God’s kingdom but we have been called to serve as God’s delegates to bring Good News to the world.

Churches, then, should function something like embassies. Churches are God’s embassies in a foreign land to support the interests of God’s kingdom. However, an embassy also functions to help foreigners find out more about the embassy’s country and even help people who would like to enter that country to find out how to do that.

As representatives of God’s kingdom, therefore, we speak for our King. As Paul said, we implore on Christ’s behalf—as though God were making his appeal through us. Our appeal or petition is that people would become reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5.20) and that is truly the mission of God

Matthew’s Christmas: For the Sake of the World

Imagine that we had a chance to hear the old tax collector-turned apostle Matthew tell his story.

As we knocked on the door, we would have waited as the old man moved his fragile body to the door. We would have been warmly received, as Matthew was well known for giving the best parties back in the day.

As we entered the house, we would have noticed the pictures hanging in the entryway. These pictures honored the ancestors who had paved the way for God’s mission to the world. Among the pictures were those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Solomon, Zerubbabel, and lesser-known personalities, like Akim, Matthan, and finally a Joseph.

The few women among the pictures were somehow out-of-place: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and then one picture simply read: “Formerly Uriah’s wife.” Next to the picture of Joseph was that of very young woman named “Mary.” Had we the courage to ask Matthew about this very small but odd collection of women, Matthew might have reminded us that in God’s story there is always room for the outsider.

Once we finally entered Matthew’s living room and after he stoked the fire to make sure we were all comfortable, he would begin his tale. Unexpectedly, we would be jarred by the Christmas story beginning in a bit of a scandal. Joseph actually wanted to divorce Mary because she was pregnant—maybe the women in the collection have more in common than previously thought.

Matthew would regale us with the story of the “magi,” stargazers from a far away land who came to worship Jesus. Again Matthew reminds us, there is always room for outsiders. Against the backdrop of this story, Matthew would tell us about Herod’s deceitful plan to “worship” Jesus and how Herod’s envy set in motion the incident in Bethlehem.

Matthew himself is visibly shaken as he recalls the events the day Herod sent troops to exterminate the baby boys of Bethlehem to ensure there would be no contenders for his throne, not now, not ever. Not exactly what one expects to hear as part of the Christmas story.

Now we are visibly shaken—not understanding why God would let this happen and why God did not intervene. Matthew responds to our uneasiness. “Don’t you see God entered our world just as it is.”

* If you found this take on Matthew’s version of the nativity intriguing, you might enjoy this: http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&co_key=1962.