Christmas–Why God becoming man matters

 

The Christmas season is upon us, and for the next several weeks, we will be surrounded by the cultural trappings of this holiday. Christmas movies will be on television, Christmas carols playing on the radio, Christmas lights decorating everything, Santa Claus in the malls and stores. Now as I say, these are all cultural trappings, but at its heart, Christmas is a religious holiday, and an event of the greatest theological significance. Now as many of you may be aware, the spiritual purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But what’s so extraordinary about this special season is that the Christmas story actually begins long before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And the message of Christmas continues long beyond the life of Jesus here on earth. So why does Christmas matter?? My succinct response is this: Because the idea of God becoming a man matters…greatly!! We’re going to be looking at several different passages from Scripture, in an attempt to address the theological significance of Christmas, and hopefully help you to better understand, apart from all of the cultural importance we’ve attached to it, why the true message of Christmas matters—eternally.

 

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Despite what might be implied from singing songs like “Away in a manger” or “O Little town of Bethlehem”, or seeing countless Nativity scenes displayed during this time of year, Christmas itself does not begin in Bethlehem, nor does it begin with the Birth of Jesus. Instead, Christmas begins with Creation. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is equal to God precisely because He has always existed alongside God. So there was a never a point at which Jesus was created by God. And this belief, like all foundational Christian doctrine, has a firm basis in Scripture. Here is John 1:1-5—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Now to explain this passage, when John talks about the Word with a capital W, he is referring to none other than Christ. As you may know, from the very beginning of the Bible, when God is creating the world in The Book of Genesis, He speaks everything into existence. So the Word is a very powerful concept in Scripture, and here John declares rather forcefully for us that Jesus co-existed alongside God from the beginning and was even directly involved in the act of creation. This passage from John also equates Jesus to being light, a light shining in the darkness. And this description symbolizes the fact that not only was Jesus around from before when the world was even created, but He represents and indeed embodies the triumph of good over evil, of redemption over sin, and finally, life over death itself.

 

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So then if Christ has pre-existed, alongside God from the beginning of time, as part of the Trinity, what are we precisely celebrating at Christmas?? We say the “birth of Christ”, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say the Incarnation. Listen to John 1:14—“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” This verse really contains the whole theological message of Christmas in a nutshell. The Word becomes flesh—that is Jesus, the eternal God, comes down to earth and becomes one of us. And yet, as John makes explicit here, Jesus becomes a Man without losing His divinity–without ceasing to be God. His glory remains the same as that of the Father. Now I fully understand that this is a challenging theological concept to grasp. But nonetheless this mystery, this amazing truth of God becoming man lies at the heart of Christmas, and why it matters. Because for God to become a man means that eternity has entered into our midst. And it was done out of love for us, for all humanity. One of the most creative illustrations for the Incarnation that I’ve ever heard came from Bishop Fulton J Sheen. He was a Catholic priest that up until his death in 1979, was for many years a noted television speaker for his devotional program “Life is worth living”. Sheen once gave a message entitled “Superman and Christmas.” In it, he made a startling comparison between Superman, the Man of Steel, and Jesus. Christ’s birth was like “Superman in reverse” Sheen said. Clark Kent goes into the phone booth to emerge infinitely stronger and more powerful, as Superman. But at Christmas, God—the infinite, the eternal, takes on the form of a helpless babe. God becomes weak to show us His love. And in doing so He shows His greatest power. In addition, while Superman, for all of his great power, can only affect events from the outside, from the external, Jesus, being born, comes into the world to change the hearts of humanity, from the inside. For at that blessed moment in Bethlehem, the moment we sing about in all the Christmas Carols, the birth of Christ marks the point at which the powers of evil and darkness are shattered by the coming of God into the world.

 

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Now Christmas is on December 25th, but the several weeks leading up to its observance, weeks of anticipation and preparation, are known as Advent. We observe Advent because Christ’s birth was also anticipated, and prepared for in Scripture. In fact, for centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets wrote about how a time was coming when God would send a Savior, a Messiah to redeem not only the people of Israel, but indeed all of humanity. Now the prophets, most succinctly defined, are those individuals who speak a word from the Lord. They are God’s mouthpiece as it were, to speak truth to His people—offering at differing times messages of both hope and judgment. There are many, many prophecies in the Old Testament which allude to Christ. I want to share here just a few from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah 7:14—“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” This prophecy refers to the coming of Jesus, through the miracle of a virgin birth to Mary. Then the prophet reveals more of the spiritual significance of Christ’s coming in Isaiah 9:2, and 6—“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Later, in Isaiah 11:1-2, we hear a prophecy of the lineage of Christ, and the spiritual work that He is called to do here on the earth. “There shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” But have you ever wondered why Jesus was born at the particular time that He was?? I’m reminded of some lyrics from the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar. “You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned/Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?/If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation/Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication”. You can read all sorts of studies and analysis which will talk about how Jesus came at a strategic and pivotal time in world history. They will discuss the so-called “Pax Romana” which allowed for the fluid interchange between different peoples throughout the vast boundaries of the Roman Empire. And then there was the wide network of Roman roads which made travel and transportation easier across the Mediterranean world. Also there was the Greek influence, which made a New Testament written in that language widely accessible across much of the Mediterranean world. All these may be valid reasons, but ultimately Christ’s coming at the precise point in history in which He was born is strategic for one reason—God chose it! There remains somewhat of a mystery as to the specific timing, but we have to be alright with accepting that God had a particular purpose and reason for sending Jesus into the world at the time that He did. As Galatians 4:4 tells us “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” The longing for Jesus’ coming, and the joyful anticipation of His arrival at are the heart of what Christians will observe over the next several weeks as part of Advent. These are sentiments that are encapsulated well in a treasured old song of the season—“O Come, o come, Emmanuel.” It’s interesting, how in the song, the first stanza expresses the hope of the Jewish people for the Savior: “O come, O come, Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel”. But a few stanzas later, the anticipation that is expressed for Christ’s coming is now shared by all humanity: “O come, Desire of nations, bind/
All peoples in one heart and mind”

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But the actual birth of Jesus was not quite as serene and peaceful an event as is often depicted in Christmas postcards, or in popular carols like “Silent Night.” In fact, when God came into the world as a man, He had to face all of the challenges that typically exist in our fallen world. There was no special treatment or exceptions made, even for the one who quite literally was King of this Universe. But before we get into the difficulties surrounding Christ’s birth, I just want to make a brief mention about the genealogies listed in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. The writers of the Gospels want us to know that Jesus comes from a very particular lineage, from the House of King David, as well as having other distinguished forebears such as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now just having a noteworthy ancestry of course does not alone prove that Christ is the Messiah. But it does reinforce at least the idea that this is someone very special, whose lineage calls to mind other great Biblical heroes. But however storied His ancestry may have been, the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth could be considered anything but heroic. A dirty stable for a birthplace, an unwed mother, a potentially shamed spouse, and a murderous tyrant of a king are some of the elements of this first Christmas story. Mary, the mother of Jesus is a remarkable woman. According to Luke 1, she is visited by the angel Gabriel, and told she will bear a very special child. Luke 1:31—“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.” Mary, upon hearing this news is a bit incredulous, because she is not yet married to her future husband Joseph, and is still a virgin. Gabriel then tells her in Luke 1:35—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Then Mary’s response, one of perfect obedience and submission to the will of God is recorded in Luke 1:38—“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” But while Mary responds with ideal obedience, there is still the matter of her betrothed, her husband-to-be, Joseph. What is he to think when his pledged bride suddenly tells him she is pregnant from the Holy Spirit, and what will all of those in the surrounding community think?? After all, in those days especially, the idea of woman becoming pregnant outside of marriage was shameful to say the least, and could have carried very serious consequences for both Mary and Joseph. But then Joseph’s doubts and fears are put to rest when he too is visited by an angel, this time in a dream, as recounted in Matthew 1:20-21: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

 

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But even with both mother and father in agreement now with God’s unique plan for bringing His Son into the world, there are still plenty of difficulties to surmount. Because of a nationwide census required by the governing Roman authorities, Joseph, along with the heavily pregnant Mary, must make an arduous journey from his home in Nazareth, down to Bethlehem. Once there, they cannot find any room in an inn, and so Mary is forced to give birth in the humble surroundings of a manger, which is a feeding trough for livestock. In keeping with such humility, the first people to whom heaven’s angels announce the birth of the Christ child are not Roman officials, Jewish high priests, or rich merchants. Instead, according to Luke 2, it is a lowly group of shepherds who receive the initial good tidings. Interestingly enough though, even though Jesus’ birth is acclaimed by people such as the shepherds, there are others around who are not so pleased. Chief among them is King Herod, a local Jewish puppet ruler with Roman support. Herod is so concerned about the prophecies of a new king being born in Bethlehem that he takes the extraordinary cruel and sadistic measure of ordering that all male children in the region of Bethlehem under the age of 2 be put to death, in what came to be known as the “Massacre of the Innocents.” To escape the persecution of this murderous King, Joseph is warned by an angel to flee to Egypt with his family until Herod’s death makes it safe for them to return. And this flight is in fulfillment of a prophecy from Hosea 11:1. It also forms a neat kind of symmetry, or parallel too. In the account given to us in the Book of Exodus, God calls His people out of exile from Egypt to enter the physical embodiment of the Covenant–the Promised Land. Then centuries later, the Lord calls His Son of out Egypt to re-enter Israel, and bring the blessings of the spiritual “promised land” and the Covenant to all peoples.

 

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As we reflect for a minute, what do we make of all these challenges and indeed difficulties that surround the birth of Christ? They seem almost ironic in some ways because we are so accustomed to thinking of Christmas as a quiet, peaceful time. But there is a great amount of hope we can take from the fact that God is able to work even amidst such formidable obstacles as we have just described, to bring about His perfect plan of universal redemption through Jesus entering the world. And to everyone for whom Christmas, for whatever reason may be a difficult time of the year, this message of joy triumphing through adversity is very timely and encouraging I believe. I think of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of you probably know that name…Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian of the mid-20th century who had the courage to live for his convictions, and actively oppose the evil regime of Adolf Hitler. For taking such a stance, Bonhoeffer would eventually find himself a prisoner of the Nazi regime. And so in December of 1943, separated from his friends, his family, and his fiancée, he reflected in a letter on what Christmas meant for him, as viewed from a jail cell: “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell…That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of man, that God will approach where men turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for him they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives him a part in the communion of saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance.” Those are remarkable words born of Bonhoeffer’s faith, and unshakeable spiritual conviction. They are also words that, I would argue, could not be possible apart from the fact that at the heart of the Christmas story is the truth that Jesus came to earth in the midst of obstacles, and difficulties, and yet God’s work was not hindered in the slightest for all of the opposition that surrounded it.

 

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However of course I wouldn’t wish to paint a picture of Christmas that only focuses on these obstacles, because ultimately the story of Christmas is one that is overflowing with joy, a joy not just for December 25th or a season, but a joy that should infiltrate and underscore our entire lives as Christ followers. Most importantly, it’s a joy that extends beyond this earthly life, and echoes into eternity. There’s so much I could talk about here, but I do want to focus on just a few of the remarkable blessings that accompany Jesus’ birth, as accounted in the Scriptures. We’ve already mentioned how Christ’s birth was first announced by angels to the shepherds. And the news these angels bring contains blessings of the highest order, blessings that will impact countless generations beyond those first humble hearers of the news on the hills outside Bethlehem. Luke 2:10-11: “Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Then a few verses later, a whole multitude of angels appear, praising God and proclaiming: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” So we clearly see from the angels’ greeting that Jesus’ coming represents good news for all the earth. But the impact, and blessing of Christ’s arrival is perhaps even more clearly marked by the observance and devotion paid to Him by the Magi, also known as the Wise Men. Their remarkable story is found in Matthew 2. Who exactly were these visitors to the Christ child? There are some different speculations—perhaps members of royalty or nobility, astronomers, astrologers, or Zoroastrian priests. Where did they come from—after all “The East” is a rather vague geographical designation, isn’t it? Many scholars think they hailed from the region which would now be the country of Iran. But I want to think about the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus in relation to the Great Commission. Because the visit of the Wise Men represents the Great Commission in reverse. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ sends out His disciples to go and preach to all the nations, but here in Matthew 2 the nations come to Jesus, at the very moment of His birth. While we don’t know the precise origin of these mysterious visitors, we can probably assume that coming, as they do from “The East”, they are not Jewish. In Luke’s Nativity narrative we see Jesus’ birth being proclaimed by the angels to the humble shepherds. The Kingdom of God reaches across the socio-economic divisions of that ancient Jewish society. In the same manner, Matthew, with his account of the Magi’s visit, shows how the Kingdom of God reaches across national and cultural divisions. From the very start, because these foreign dignitaries have sought Christ out, Matthew wants to demonstrate to us that Jesus will be of significance not just for the Jews, and not just in Israel, but for the Gentiles, and for the whole world. The Savior’s birth has universal implications. We also find in the Magi, a model of consistent faithfulness, embodied by the way in which they patiently and diligently follow the Star which leads them to Bethlehem.

 

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            In addition, we can learn from the Magi’s story by specifically taking note of the gifts that they bring. There is the gold—symbol of the kingship of Christ, the Messiah who has come in the line of David. Frankincense—a kind of incense used in worship, and a reminder of the Divinity of Christ. Myrrh, used in embalming, is symbolic of Jesus’ eventual death, a foreshadowing of the purpose for which He came into this world—to give up His life as a ransom for many. But beyond these immediately symbolic meanings for the three gifts of the Wise Men, what else can we say about them? They represent the best of what the Magi had—laid at the altar of the newborn Jesus. I don’t think I could let a discussion of the Magi pass without referencing the famous 1905 O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi.” Many of you may be familiar with this classic little work. It’s the story of Jim and Della, a young married couple who are short on money, and yet want so badly to express their feelings for each other with the perfect Christmas gift. So Jim sells his prize watch in order to buy a beautiful set of combs for Della, who has luxurious long hair. Only it turns out that Della has cut her hair short and sold it in order to purchase a fancy chain for Jim’s watch. The young lovers are heartbroken when they discover how they have sacrificed for each other—seemingly for naught. But the author offers some perspective on their situation with the story’s closing lines: The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.” As the O. Henry story illustrates, an important lesson that the Magi teach us is to offer the best of ourselves, whatever gifts or talents we have to Christ. We cannot hold back, if we are going to serve the Lord—we must give Him everything. And if we are willing to give ourselves to Jesus, to even sacrifice for Him, we can be sure that this is only in some small way, a response to the magnitude of the love that He has already demonstrated towards us. For as 1 John 4:19 tells us, “We love Him because He first loved us.”

 

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So as this Christmas approaches, I hope all of you can think about how a message of peace and hope has come into the world through Jesus. And just as God’s love triumphed over all the forces of evil thousands of years ago during a time of difficulty and turmoil, it can do the same today. But we all need to ask ourselves—what will our response to Jesus be? Will we respond in obedience, like Mary, and like Joseph, perhaps even during those times when we don’t fully understand God’s plan? And like the Magi, will we bring to Christ our gifts and our talents—will we bring Him our best? Because as I’ve tried to show you tonight, the message of Christmas carries a significance that is far greater than just a seasonal observance. It’s a story that begins with Creation, and continues into eternity. To accept Jesus’ love for you, and dedicate a life in service to Him would be to receive the greatest Christmas present that you could ever imagine. And committing yourself to Jesus’ love can enable you to be a giver, and someone who blesses others for all of your life. Our world today desperately needs to hear once again that ancient message of the angels, of peace on earth, and goodwill to men. This Christmas, will you receive that truth from God, and then share it with those around you??

 

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Reformation Reflections

 

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October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the event that is generally considered by historians to have launched the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Posting proposals for public debate was a common occurrence in the university community, and Luther, a once-devout Catholic, and former monk and priest, as well as a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, did not intend to launch a theological revolution. But that is what ended up happening, as his ideas spread rapidly, spurred on by the relatively recent new technology of the printing press. The theological doctrines and mindsets that emerged from the work of Luther and his followers, as well as other Reformation thinkers, have made a profound impact on my own spiritual formation. This is not surprising, given that I grew up in a denomination, the Baptist Church, which can trace much of its spiritual lineage back to the Reformation. So on this momentous anniversary in church history, I thought it would be insightful to reflect a bit upon some of the spiritual legacy that I, and millions of other Christians have inherited from the pioneering work and thought of Luther. By no means will this post attempt to exhaustively cover all of the main teachings of Reformation theology, or of Luther himself. Rather I want to delineate some of those Reformation values that have been particularly significant for me, and at the same time underscore the Biblical foundation for all of these teachings. Because perhaps the single most important achievement of Luther was to encourage Christians to define themselves as a “people of the book”, who looked first and foremost to Scripture as the source for all of their beliefs and practices.

 

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Speaking of the Bible, one of the major tenets that emerged from the Reformation and the life of Luther was the idea of Sola Scriptura, Latin for “Scripture alone.” This is the concept that the Bible is sufficient in itself to serve as the authoritative guide to the Christian’s life and belief. One of the great things for me about the teachings of the Reformation is that we ultimately don’t have to be persuaded by Luther, or any other theologian about the validity of these teachings—we can go straight to the Bible for validation. And that’s true with the concept of Sola Scriptura as well. In numerous verses and passages, the Bible attests to its own authority as our guide for life. For example, Psalm 119, the longest of all Psalms, represents a beautiful hymn to the glory of God’s Word, and all the ways in which it can aid and sustain us through life. God’s Word guards us from wrongdoing. Psalm 119:11“Your word I have hidden in my heart,that I might not sin against you.” The Scriptures help us in times of difficulty and suffering. Psalm 119:28—“My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to your word” Scripture and its truth are not just for one age, but for all time. Psalm 119:89—“Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” The Bible will guide us in all areas where we would require advice and discernment. Psalm 119:105—“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Then we later have the testimony of Christ, which echoes Psalm 119 in attesting to the power and permanence of God’s Word. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He responds by quoting from the Bible, and avowing our absolute need to be sustained by it daily. Matthew 4:4—“It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Here Jesus is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, thereby demonstrating His own knowledge and faithfulness to Scripture. Christ’s Twelve Apostles furthermore recognize that they can do no better than to be guided by the Divine Word. At one point, Jesus asks them if they wish to turn back from following Him, as some others have already. Peter’s response is perfect in its succinct truth. John 6:68—“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And then like Psalm 119, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us that the Bible can guide us in all areas of our life: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Now, if the idea of Sola Scriptura may no longer seem revolutionary to us, that is a testament to how ingrained it has become in the life and spiritual outlook of many believers. But in Luther’s time, this was a very startling claim to make. After all, the Catholic church had built much of its theological framework upon the assumption that church tradition, and the teaching power of the Magisterium–that is the pope, bishops and the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, was an equal source of authority to Scripture itself. Furthermore, because the Bible was written in Latin, its actual message was inaccessible to all but the most educated classes of society. But Luther challenged these centuries-long patterns, because one of the things that troubled him the most about the Catholicism of his day was the extent to which it was endorsing practices which Luther felt did not have any real Scriptural basis. Luther felt strongly that if the Bible didn’t endorse a practice, there was no other human authority that could justify it. As he once wrote—“The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”

 

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In 1521, Luther, whose writings attacking the church’s corruption were starting to garner increasing controversy, and gathering him a following of his own, was called before a council of the Holy Roman Empire, in what came to be known as the “Diet of Worms.” There, before the imperial council, Luther was asked to renounce all of his writings as heresy. His famous response was this: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Luther received the courage to stand against the imperial authorities and the assembled might of the Catholic hierarchy because it was his solid conviction that Christians should order their lives, first and foremost, according to the dictates of Scripture. Anything else, even the proclamations handed down by the highest ecclesiastical authorities, was prone to error, and could not provide the basis for supporting our strongest spiritual beliefs and convictions.

Another doctrine which was closely related to Sola Scriptura was Solus Christus—“Christ alone”. This is the belief that Jesus alone is the mediator between God and man—not Mary, not the Saints, and not priests. Salvation comes through Christ alone, and every believer has the privilege of direct access to Jesus. A closely related doctrine that follows from this is the “priesthood of the believer.” If Christians do not have to go through a priest in order to have access to God, then it follows that all believers, at least symbolically, are priests. 1 Peter 2:9 is a strong verse in support of this doctrine: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Then in Revelation 1:5-6 we read “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” The conception of the priesthood of the believer is essential to understanding why Luther felt it was so important to translate the Bible into the vernacular. Because if all men were priests, then they all had the God-given right, and the power, as given by the Holy Spirit, to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This role of the Holy Spirit to aid us in spiritual understanding, which could naturally include the reading of the Bible, is based on the promise given by Jesus to His disciples in John 14:26—“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” With the power of the Holy Spirit guiding them, Luther was confident that any individual believer could find and practice spiritual truth as drawn out from Scripture. As he memorably wrote, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it”.

 

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Following the Diet of Worms, Luther was installed at the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Prince Frederick the Wise, and there, for almost an entire year he labored on one of the greatest projects of his life—translating the Bible into German. 19th century Swiss theologian and historian Philip Schaff wrote of Luther’s translation work: “The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race.” The fact that any one of us today can pick up a Bible, selecting one of the myriad of different translations we can understand best, to read and interpret it for our own personal devotion and faith practice is one of the timeless and indelible spiritual legacies bequeathed to us from the work of Luther and other reformers.

As we’ve mentioned, Solus Christus is the idea that Christ is the only mediator necessary between God and humanity, a teaching reinforced by several key Scriptures. 1 Timothy 2:5 states “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” In a similar fashion, we have the description of Christ from Hebrews 4:14-16—“Seeing then as we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Even as we accept that Christ alone is the means by which we are saved, another spiritual legacy of Luther and the Reformation is the way in which we understand the process of Salvation, and how we are saved. A major shift in the understanding of how we receive salvation is embodied in two other Reformation principles Sola Fide, and Sola Gratia, “faith alone”, and grace alone.” One of Luther’s most significant theological breakthroughs came from his reading and interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Whereas traditional Catholic teaching had included good works as a necessary component of salvation, leading eventually to abuses such as the sale of indulgences, Luther, drew a different conclusion from Scripture, and reflection upon his own early experience as a monk and a priest. During his monastic days, Luther had spent obsessive hours in the confessional booth, terrified lest he forget a single sin and be unforgiven. He tried in every way possible to be a model monk, praying and fasting rigorously, but yet he still remained frightened of the potential wrath of God. Then, as a newly ordained priest, he struggled to perform his first mass, again fearful at the idea of God’s wrath coming upon him as a sinful man, unworthy to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ. The spiritual realization that put these fears to rest finally was Luther’s understanding that we could never be good enough to in any way earn God’s favor, or contribute to our salvation with our works. Instead, it was all based on faith alone—meaning that God has done all of the work through Christ on our behalves. As he stated: “This faith alone, when based upon the sure promises of God, must save us; as our text clearly explains. And in the light of it all, they must become fools who have taught us other ways to become godly. … Man may forever do as he will, he can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers him divine grace and enlightens his heart so as to get upon the right way. Among those verses that helped Luther in this understanding included Romans 1:16-17—“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘the just shall live by faith.” Then, there is Romans 3:28—“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law”, and Romans 10:9—“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” The doctrine of Sola Gratia is closely linked to that of Sola Fide, emphasizing that God’s unmerited favor is what makes our salvation possible, and that He is in no way responding to any innate goodness or merit that we’ve already displayed. Verses that support this doctrine include 2 Corinthians 12:9—“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly will I rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And then Ephesians 1:7—“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”

 

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In addition to some of these significant points of Reformation theology drawn from the life and work of Luther, I want to share a few of his quotations that I’ve found personally inspiring and helpful in shaping my spiritual outlook. When it comes to having an overall rubric for Biblical interpretation, I’ve never heard a better one than Luther’s guiding principle of “what promotes Christ.” Regardless of where I’m reading in Scripture, keeping my thoughts centered on what will promote the message and spirit of Jesus is an excellent way to distill and apply the central truth of a particular Biblical verse or passage. This is another favorite Luther quote of mine: “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing, and he must do his own dying.” There is a cherished Baptist doctrine known as “soul competency” or “soul liberty” which effectively underscores the truth expressed in Luther’s saying. It is the idea that each individual must one day stand before God alone, and that no church affiliation or family status can affect or substitute for an individual accountability before God. In 2017 this may seem like a fairly standard spiritual concept—that we are all ultimately responsible for the state of our own souls, and no one else. But in Luther’s time it was a bold break from centuries of Catholic teaching that saw salvation as a corporate process, regulated by the sacraments and church membership. In the 16th century, excommunication was such a feared penalty because it represented not only being cut off from the fellowship of the church, but being cut off from heaven itself. Luther recognized however that no human ecclesial body could ultimately determine who did or did not have access to God, because in the final judgment, we will stand before God as individual men and women. Two Scriptures out of the many that support soul competency are John 3:17-18, and Hebrews 4:13. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Then, from Hebrews—“And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Both of these verses emphasize an individual responsibility to God when it comes to understanding our salvation.

Another very insightful quote from Luther is this one: I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self. Now first of all, I share this not to in any way disparage the current Pope Francis, or other leadership of the Catholic Church. While I don’t share all of the same theological viewpoints as most Roman Catholics, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that they have come a long way in the last 500 years since Luther’s time in correcting some of the abuses and corruption that he spoke out against. But we have to remember that in the context of Luther’s time, when faced with excommunication and possible execution by the Catholic hierarchy, his usage of the word “pope” here is symbolic more than anything of an oppressing power, and a spiritual threat. And yet Luther perceptively realizes that despite the dangers he faced in running afoul of the powerful church hierarchy, the greatest threat, to his spiritual welfare in particular, was the sinfulness and self-centeredness that lurked within his own heart. It is a great caution, and one that is echoed repeatedly by the words of Scripture. Jeremiah 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?”. Then Proverbs 4:23 warns us: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” And then there are Jesus’ words from Matthew 15:18-19—“Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.”

 

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Finally, I could not conclude this post without mentioning that Luther is the author of one of my all-time favorite hymns, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” As did so many of the great hymns of old, Luther’s words and music stir in us not only the desire to worship God in song, but each line also represents a rich repository of Biblical truth. The general basis for the song is Psalm 46, but each verse focuses on a different aspect of God’s provision for us throughout life. Here is the first stanza: “A mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing/Our Helper He amid the flood, of mortal ills prevailing/For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe/His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate/On earth is not his equal.” This stanza assures us of God’s reliability, even in the face of Satan’s power, and all of the travails and tribulations that this life can bring. In the next verse, Luther elaborates more specifically on Christ’s role in saving and sustaining us through life’s pilgrimage: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing/Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing/Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He/Lord Sabaoth His Name, from age to age the same/And He must win the battle.” Next Luther talks about how Satan, though a fierce opponent, is one we can resist because we know his ultimate defeat has already been ensured. “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us/We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us/The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him/His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure/One little word shall fell him.” Then the last verse neatly summarizes a variety of themes that were key in the life and theology of Luther: the power of Scripture, priesthood of the believer, the primacy of Christ, and an abiding confidence in the truth of his reforms. “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth/The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth/Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also/The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still/His Kingdom is forever.”

500 years on, it’s clear that the theological breakthroughs of Luther and others involved in the Protestant Reformation continue to cast a long shadow. And as I mentioned earlier, perhaps the greatest part of this legacy, and one that Luther and his followers wouldn’t hesitate to reiterate, is that all of the lasting truths from the Reformation are really nothing so new or innovative, though they may have seemed that way in their day. Instead they represent a concerted effort to simply return Christians to that inexhaustible source of guidance and truth that has been waiting for us all along—the Scriptures. And so insofar as Luther or any other theological reformer from that period was able to leave a lasting spiritual heritage, it’s due to the fact that they remained faithful to Scripture and its message!

The comfort and challenge of following Jesus

With this month’s post, I want to address a very basic, yet critical question for all Christians to ask–why should we follow Jesus?? What exactly does it involve, and how might it affect your life? Doing ministry in a largely secular setting like Boulder, Colorado these last three years has constantly reminded me that as a Christian, I can never afford to assume that someone else appreciates or understands the value in identifying with Jesus and giving their lives over to His teachings. Now admittedly, the majority of non-Christians I’ve interacted with do express at least some admiration for the person of Jesus, and some of His ethical teachings. But that is still a far step removed from viewing Him as God, and as such someone worthy of worship and our entire life’s purpose. So the purpose of this month’s entry will be to examine both the comforts  and the challenges associated with following Jesus. I realize that some people come across my blog and they are not Christians, and might not even really know anything about Jesus or what His followers do. I hope that I can explain a little better about what it means to follow Jesus, and how that can bless you, and what that might cost you. Now obviously, spoiler alert here—I’m going to be advocating for people to consider following Jesus, and living in a personal relationship with Him. But I want them to understand why.

 

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Pete Carroll is the super bowl winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks. But before that, he made his name in the college ranks. From 2001 to 2009 he was one of the top coaches in college football, presiding over a USC Trojans team that won two national titles, and 97 games over a nine-year span. One big factor in Carroll’s success is that he was known as a tireless recruiter, always ready to sell the program and the opportunities it offered to new potential players. In a 2007 L.A. magazine profile, Carroll talked about his enthusiastic vision for what the USC football program could offer to a recruit. “I know what I’m offering. They can’t even conceive. They don’t—they can’t possibly understand how special—” And he stops there. Pete Carroll is at a loss for words to explain just how significant, important, special he thinks an opportunity to play football at USC is for a young man. Now that’s just a life decision regarding sports—what school to play football at, what color uniform to wear, what conference you will be competing in, etc. Imagine though a decision involving your spiritual life, one that could affect your entire worldview, how you treat others, and even perhaps gives you some answers to some of the biggest questions out there—what is the purpose of my life, and what might happen to me after I die?? I get pretty excited when I’m sharing with people about Jesus, and I sometimes feel like I don’t have the ability to fully describe how amazing it can be to have Him at the center of your life. It’s interesting, also to reflect that when Jesus called His initial group of helpers, known as the disciples, He didn’t give some big speech detailing everything they were going to do, and sort of outlining all that they were signing up for. Instead, He just said “Follow Me.” And I remember I had a professor in seminary who once remarked that these two words were simultaneously the most comforting and the most challenging words that Jesus could speak. Comforting and challenging? Seems like a paradox, doesn’t it? Well that’s what we are going to investigate for the rest of the evening.

 

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So first, let’s talk about what exactly it means to follow Jesus. That word, “follow” is a fairly vague, all-purpose term in our language today, with a wide variety of possible uses. You can follow a sports team—keeping up with their wins and losses, the players’ stats, going to see the occasional game. You can follow a celebrity on Twitter, taking note of what they post about, learning about their opinions on different events, seeing their pictures. Music lovers who have a little free time on their hands might follow a particular favorite band around, going to the concerts, and interacting with other fans along the way. In the classroom, you can follow the argument or line of reasoning of a professor as they explain a particular concept. But all of these various types of following are quite distinct from what we mean when we talk about a follower of Jesus. Because in every situation I’ve just described, to follow means to be a passive spectator, or listener. But to follow Jesus means not only to learn and absorb His teachings, but to actively participate in His work in the world today, walking in direct imitation of His life and attitude. Now one dominant theme that we see demonstrated throughout the life of Christ, and that should be equally prominent in the lives of His followers, is being a servant. Listen to Christ’s words in Matthew 20:28—“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Later, Paul writes about the humble servant attitude demonstrated by Christ in Philippians 2:7—“[He] made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Jesus teaches in many different ways about serving—one of the most notable comes in the form of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. This is the story of a man who sacrificed of his own time and money to help an injured traveler along the way, while other, supposedly more pious individuals simply passed him by. Another memorable example of Jesus’ servant heart in action comes from John 13, where even in the time leading up to His betrayal and arrest, Christ remains focused on the needs of others, to the point of washing the feet of His disciples.

 

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What else do Christ followers do? They teach, and instruct others in the truths of God. Scripture is full of “blocks” of teaching, where Christ sits down, and in great detail explains, whether to crowds or to His inner circle of disciples, what it is that God expects of them. Examples include Jesus teaching the multitudes about ethical standards for living in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, or in John 14-17, where Christ gives a detailed farewell address to strengthen and encourage the disciples before His own impending death. Throughout the Gospels we also see how Christ employs novel and thought-provoking illustrations, called parables, to help His listeners grasp what could otherwise be very abstract and challenging spiritual concepts. One such example comes in Matthew 13, which is actually a whole chapter full of nothing but parables. And when Christ teaches, He reaches a representative cross-section of the many different people in His society. He is not concerned only with the elites, or even just with the Jewish people. Jesus reaches out to everyone, from the highest to the lowest, and His teaching is for all to receive. He becomes somewhat notorious amongst the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, for spending time with societal outcasts such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and many Gentiles, or non-Jews. In response to their critiques, Christ says in Mark 2:17—“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” In John 4, Jesus takes a bold step by initiating a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. The Samaritans and the Jews were historic enemies, and in Biblical times it was highly unusual for unrelated, or unmarried men and women to converse together in public. But in doing so, Jesus boldly challenges the social conventions of His day, which did so much to separate people based on gender, ethnicity, and profession, thus reminding us that everyone is a child of God, worthy of dignity and respect.

 

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When we look at His interactions with people as a whole, we could summarize much of Jesus’ work, and teaching by saying that He comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable. I’m reminded of a description taken from the lyrics of an old Michael W. Smith song, “Secret Ambition” which talks about Jesus: “questioning those in powerful positions/running to those who called His name.” Again and again in the Gospels, we find Jesus coming to the aid of the powerless, and the persecuted. In John 8:7, Jesus rescues a woman caught in adultery, as an angry crowd is preparing to stone her, dispersing them with these powerful words in “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone first.” To all of His followers who might face affliction and challenges in the world, Jesus gives great hope, and comfort, as expressed in John 16:33—“In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” As we’ve already mentioned, Jesus sometimes has clashes with the religious authorities of His day, especially the Pharisees, who considered themselves to be the most observant of all Jews, and experts in all areas of religious law. And yet, from Jesus’ perspective, they often appeared more concerned with observing the letter, rather than the spirit, or actual intent of the law. For example, when the Pharisees chastise Him for the company He keeps with societal outcasts such as tax collectors, Jesus responds in Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’, which is itself a quote from the Old Testament prophets, specifically from Hosea 6:6. Jesus is frustrated with these religious leaders because He sees them missing the point of the law, in order to seek to enforce its exact detail. In another famous example of challenging the powerful, Jesus enters the Temple and in a holy fury, drives out all of the money-changers and business people who were using the outer area of the Temple to transact their trade. In Mark 11:17, He angrily accuses them: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a den of thieves.” Just as an interesting side note—a lot of people assume that Jesus drove out these figures because they were cheating worshippers and overcharging them for exchanging money, or buying animals for sacrifices. But another interpretation I’ve heard of this story is that Jesus drives them out because their activities are taking place in what was known as the Court of the Gentiles, an area outside the main temple, where Gentiles were permitted to come and worship. Jesus did not want their access to worship to be blocked by this makeshift marketplace that had arisen in the Temple complex.

The fact too that Jesus refers to the Temple as a house of prayer for all nations” is a further indication of another dominant trait of His life and work—and something subsequently that His followers should strive to imitate: a passion for evangelism. Throughout the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus has a message for all peoples, and not just the Jews. And He calls on His followers to continue to spread His message to all people, once His earthly ministry is concluded. The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:18-20, is well-known as Jesus’ final command. It offers a pretty clear mandate to His followers to go and spread the Word: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So then people who identify as followers are Jesus are to never keep their faith a secret, or private matter, but rather they are to always look for opportunities where they can share it with others. Jesus accordingly advises in Matthew 10:32-33 that sharing a verbal witness is not just the responsibility of pastors or ministry leaders, but is something that all believers are called, and expected to do. “Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

 

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Followers of Jesus are also people of prayer. In all circumstances, regardless of what is happening in their lives, they communicate with God through prayer, directly imitating the life of Christ, whom, according to the Scriptures, spent frequent time with God in prayer, and often got up early in the mornings, or retreated away from the crowds  to a place of solitude in order to pray. In Luke 11:2-4, we find the model prayer given by Jesus, sometimes known as the Lord’s Prayer. But this is not to be followed slavishly or mechanically. In fact, in Matthew 6:7, Jesus cations “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Prayer, for the Christ follower then, should be personal and heartfelt, and never a matter of lip service or mechanical repetition. The attitudes displayed by Christians to those around them are very important too. Following the example of Jesus, who forgave even the very men who put Him to death as hung in agony on the cross, Christ’s followers are to be forgiving people as well. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Followers of Jesus are also to be men and women who display unfailing personal integrity. In John 8:44, the devil, Satan, is referred to be Jesus as “the father of lies”, and so in sharp contrast, followers of Jesus should be marked by their truthfulness. With this in mind, Jesus instructs us in Matthew 5:37 to not make oaths or swear by anything, but rather “let your yes be yes, and your no, no”. Lastly, but certainly not least, Christians are to be known as people of faith. We are told in Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God, and a constant request by Jesus in His interactions with the disciples, and others is that they learn to demonstrate faith, trusting in God even when circumstances are difficult, and it is hard to discern a Divine plan. According to Jesus, exercising even just a little faith can make a huge difference. Matthew 17:20—“If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

 

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I could go on talking about what all it entails to follow Jesus, but now I want to shift gears into discussing the practical question of why?? Is it worth my time, my life, or anyone’s time, or life, to devote over to following the teachings of Jesus Christ? May I suggest at this moment what is known in the business world as a cost-benefit analysis? Let’s measure out some of the potential positives, and negatives to following Christ, and see where that leads us, see where we end up. Now I know some of you are already thinking, wait a minute Blake, you’re talking about a purely spiritual decision here—how can you possibly be making an allusion to business?? But a decision to follow Jesus gets us into the territory of what we call Lordship. This is the idea that for a Jesus follower—not only spiritual things, but every aspect of their life: relationships, finances, your career, even hobbies and how one spends their free time—these things should in some way all reflect one’s identity as a Christ follower. Recognizing the concept of Lordship means there’s no area of our lives that we should keep God out of, and that there isn’t a sharp divide between “sacred” and “secular” aspects of life—everything we do falls under God’s domain, and jurisdiction. In Luke 14:27-28 Jesus tells us—“Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it” So let’s look now at both some of the benefits, and some of the challenges and costs to following Jesus.

 

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In terms of the benefits that following Jesus can bring to your life, there are so many things I could talk about. But I’ll touch on just a few. First, following Jesus gives you a personal relationship with Him. Now some of you may be wondering exactly what this means. It means that following Jesus is not just an abstract process whereby you learn His teachings and try to honor and emulate them, the way you would a political philosophy. For the Christian, Jesus is not some distant exemplar from the ancient past, He is a living and ever-present source of inspiration, a guide to every facet of life, and most importantly, a Savior. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But in John 10:4, a passage where Jesus is called the “Good Shepherd” the personal relationship Christ has to His followers is well-illustrated. “When He brings out His own sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.” This is why too, you might sometimes hear a Christian say,“it’s about a relationship, not a religion.” Jesus is a personal, every day presence in the life of the believer, a dear friend, and not someone you only encounter in church, or through certain rituals. In John 15:15, Jesus tells His disciples, “no longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know  what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Note again the emphasis on a close, and personal relationship between Christ and His followers. Following Jesus and knowing Him personally also gives you purpose for your life. I think that’s something that everyone is looking for, but so often it eludes us. Now throughout the Old Testament, a big part of what gave purpose and order to the lives of the Jews was following the Law. This was an exhaustive code that basically governed how to act and behave in every conceivable facet of human life. But in Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus takes the 613 commandments of the law, and perfectly reduces them to two main commands. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

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We look at the world around us today, and read news of monster hurricanes, raging forest fires, North Korean nuclear threats, credit agency security breaches…and now most recently a horrific  mass shooting in Las Vegas. So amidst all of this turmoil and unrest, isn’t it nice to know that another major benefit of following Jesus is the peace that Christ brings to your life. The gift of peace is a promise that Christ offers to His faithful. Listen to Jesus’ words in John 14:27—“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” A wonderful Biblical example of Christ’s peace-giving power in action comes in Mark 4, when Jesus, traveling in a small boat with his disciples, calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee that threatens to capsize them. And when I think of Christian peace, I’m reminded too of a great story that my mother shared with me one time. A farmhand once arrived in a prairie town, and soon found work on a large family farm. He got along well with the owner, and seemed to be a dependable, reliable helper. Now one of the things the farmhand did every night, before going to sleep, was to make sure that the barn was shut up securely, all the animals were fed, and to double-check that all of his additional tasks for that day were completed. Well late one evening, a violent storm blew in–it sounded like it might be a tornado. So the farm owner awakened, and rushed out to check on things. Immediately, he went charging into the little building adjourning the barn where his farm hand was quartered, and he found the man asleep. Absolutely livid, the farmer yelled at him to wake up!! But the farmhand upon awaking was very calm, and simply told his employer that everything was safe and secure as it should be. The farm owner, still alarmed, rushed out to check on the barn and animals and everything else, and when he returned, he told his farmhand he was pleased, and apologized for his earlier outburst. The farmhand replied that he knew he could rest secure, even though the storm raged, because he had already completed his duties as instructed.

 

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The point of this little story is that Christian peace comes to us not when sit back and passively wait for it, but when we actively trust Jesus, and do those things He commands us to do. At the same time we must leave whatever is out of our control in His hands, and trust that He will bring about the right outcome in any situation. Following Jesus can bring you peace, and there’s all sorts of other ways it can positively impact your character and attitudes. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists out nine character qualities, called the Fruit of the Spirit, and these are qualities that all Christ followers should demonstrate. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Now let me just ask you—whether you’re Christian or not, whether you even consider yourself a spiritual person or not, don’t these sound like qualities you’d like to have in your life? One final benefit of following Jesus is the hope He gives us for the future, and indeed for eternity. Hebrews 13:8 assures us of the unchanging nature of Christ, as someone we can always put our faith and trust in: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Now as we just talked about a minute ago, following Jesus can bring you peace, and this peace is really tied into the idea that Christ, as our Savior, has overcome all of the sin, and the evil in the world…even death itself. Two of the most hopeful and comforting verses in all of Scripture can be found in John 11:25-26. There Jesus promises us: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” To be able to possess that lasting, powerful hope that even extends beyond the reach of the grave is perhaps for me the greatest benefit, the greatest blessing in following Jesus as my Savior.

 

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But as I mentioned at the outset of this message, I don’t want to just paint a rosy picture here. Everyone needs to know that following Jesus, as wonderful a journey as it can be, will come with a cost. And talking about this cost is something that Jesus never shrank back from doing. He offered full disclosure as it were regarding the potential difficulties and challenges to anyone who was considering becoming one of His followers. He once compared the path of following Him to taking a difficult road. Listen to Jesus’ caution in Matthew 7:13-14—“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” And why exactly can the way of following Jesus be so difficult? Well Jesus calls us to attitudes and lifestyles which are often at odds with what is popular or celebrated in the world around us. And being different can at the very least provoke misunderstanding and disdain from others…sometimes it can prompt an even stronger reaction, like hatred. Jesus warns us of this in John 15:18-19—“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” But the opposition that a Christian faces is not merely human in nature. There is a chilling verse in 1 Peter 5:8 that warns us of the powerful spiritual opposition offered by Satan. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” And you can be sure that the more you try to live for Jesus, the more Satan will seek to find ways he can undermine and attack you. I know it’s not popular to say so, but following Jesus can and will lead you into suffering. When Paul first converts, Jesus says in Acts 9:16—“I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” And you can go read in 2 Corinthians 11, in great detail about all of the calamities which Paul did endure for the sake of his allegiance to Christ.

 

 

 

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But in whatever suffering we face as believers, we can be comforted by the fact that Jesus has suffered first, both as an example for us, and ultimately on our behalf. 1 Peter 2:21 touches on this theme, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.” As former director of Christian Challenge here at CU-Boulder, Bobby Pruett, liked to say, “Jesus was raised up higher than any man could go, but He also had to suffer and be brought lower than any other man could have endured.” Now you may be thinking…wow Blake, this Jesus thing was sounding ok, but all of this talk of suffering, and Satan, and walking narrow roads…I’m not so sure any more. AI can certainly understand some of those thoughts. But just consider the fact that in other fields of human endeavor, people will gladly make sacrifices, even leading to death. In the mid 1960’s as the war in Vietnam raged, Army ranger Charlie Beckwith was called upon to establish an elite surveillance and reconnaissance unit that would operate in dangerous conditions well behind enemy lines. The assignment was called “Project Delta” and Beckwith’s recruiting pitch for it was simple. “Wanted: Volunteers for Project Delta. Will guarantee you a medal. A body bag. Or both.” Amazingly, he still got men to sign up for it! In 1836, Colonel William B. Travis, was in charge of the small garrison of Texans at the Alamo, and he knew full well that the military situation was increasingly bleak. So he addressed his troops. “We must die. Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death.” Travis saw three possibilities: surrender and summary execution, trying to fight out only to be “butchered” by Mexican lancers or “remain in this fort…resist every assault, and to sell our lives as dearly as possible.” Then Travis took out his sword and marked a line in the dirt. “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” Amazingly, so the story goes, every man but one crossed over the line to join Travis. Now in both of these historical instances, these soldiers were not compelled these to take on these missions. They could have declined, citing the high risk of death. But they willingly volunteered out of a sake of duty and love for country, and perhaps even a desire to obtain glory. So is it so strange that we might willingly choose to follow Christ, despite the challenges that might entail?? Because after all, the spiritual rewards for obedience to Jesus are much more lasting than any kind of earthly recompense one could imagine.

Perhaps the ultimate cost to following Jesus perhaps is not necessarily dramatic, visible suffering though. It’s just the daily, private choices we must make as Christ followers to continually deny our own selfish impulses, and always seek to put others first, to serve and be open-handed. This is what Jesus embodied throughout His whole life and ministry, as He says in Matthew 20:28—“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” So is it worth it to follow Jesus?? This is a question that ultimately you will have to answer for yourself. Certainly though I, and many others throughout history have felt that it is. But you must be prepared to go “all-in” as they say. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:24 that we have to make a decision about who we will commit to, and who we will serve with our lives. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.” So the question is, if you don’t turn to Jesus, and if you don’t follow Him, who or what will you turn to and follow? Because we all are going to be looking to something to guide us in this world, to center our hopes and dreams around. Make sure that whatever it is for you, it’s something that is big enough and worthy enough to occupy your attention and your focus. Will you choose to live for something bigger than yourself?? To live for others, and for God? I urge you to count the cost in following Jesus, but also to count the potential cost for not doing so…for a wasted life that doesn’t leave you fulfilled in the end, and doesn’t utilize all of your God-given potential. Also please remember that regardless of your choices in the past, and even whatever choice you are making today, it’s never too late to turn back to Jesus—He will receive you, and in following Him you might just find everything else that you’ve looking for all along. Amen!

 

Faith Fundamentals

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Early September means the return of college football season, one of my favorite times of the year. I can think back also to my own years of playing football, 7th-12th grade in school. August and September, particularly in Alabama, are typically extremely hot and humid months, the weather feeling more appropriate for baseball or an outdoor swim party than for donning full pads and breaking out the pigskin. But even now that I dwell in the cooler, drier climes of Colorado, these times of the year still always take me back to those sweat-drenched, nerve-wracking, and exciting evenings under the Friday night lights. But to get to the thrill of the games themselves, a dreaded obstacle had to first be navigated, one familiar to almost anyone who’s played high school football: Two-a-days. This August rite of passage, a series of twice-daily practices leading up to the start of school and the beginning of the football season, were dreaded by almost everyone. Brutally hot temperatures, all-too-brief water breaks, punishing wind sprints, and hard, physical drills were the typical features of these sessions. And yet they were vitally important to the success of the upcoming year. Two-a-days are all about instilling and reiterating the fundamental skills necessary to play football effectively, as individuals, and as part of a team. Every year, the whole team, from the newest, skinny bench-warmers to the seasoned veterans, would learn once again, or for the first time, the fundamental gridiron skills of how to block, tackle, and execute basic skills from the playbook.

 

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What’s interesting about two-a-days though is that they are not limited just to the high school level. Until recently in fact, most college and NFL programs also held similar practice schedules. The simple reason is that football players, no matter their level of ability or experience, need a constant re-education in the fundamental skills that enable them to play the game successfully. The greatest coaches have implicitly understood that the building blocks for football success have always started with making sure that players are well-drilled in even the most rudimentary of fundamentals. Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi supposedly started out each season by entering the team locker room to deliver a simple object lesson. Holding the pigskin aloft, he would tell his squad “Gentlemen, this is a football.” As a life-long fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, one of my all-time favorite coaches is Paul “Bear” Bryant, legendary leader of the ‘Bama program from 1958-1982. Both at Alabama, and his previous successful stints at Kentucky, and Texas A&M, Bryant began his tenure by putting his squads through brutal spring and summer practices that laid the groundwork for all of his future success. Perhaps the most infamous of these took place when Bryant arrived in College Station, Texas to revive the fortunes of the failing Texas A&M Aggie football team in 1954. To prepare for the upcoming season, he took his squad to an isolated central Texas town called Junction, and put them through an unrelenting, no holds-barred series of grueling practices. One of Bryant’s players on that first A&M team was Gene Stallings, who would later coach Alabama to a national championship in 1992. Of the Junction experience, he famously quipped “we went out there in two buses and came back in one.” The attrition rate was indeed high, with many players sneaking out under cover of darkness to quit the Aggie squad. And although the team subsequently struggled to a 1-9 record in 1954, Bryant didn’t back off from his ferociously disciplined, fundamentals-first approach. Eventually it paid dividends as Texas A&M just two years later went 9-0-1 and won the 1956 Southwest Conference title. Successful coaches in other sports have also been characterized by a keen focus on the fundamental aspects of their craft. Bob Knight, who won 3 college basketball national titles while coaching at Indiana, maintained an obsessive focus on the basics. Steve Alford, an All-American shooting guard for the Hoosiers who played for Knight during the 1980s, noted in his autobiography Playing for Knight, how the legendary coach spent at least part of nearly every practice instructing players exhaustively on how to execute the three basic screens that were a staple of the Indiana offense.

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These lessons about the importance of fundamentals have been on my mind recently, because August and September, for campus ministries, are the most important months of the entire year. During this period, just prior to, and following the commencement of the fall semester, we have the chance to meet, and begin to build relationships with the majority of new students who will be involved in our ministry for the remainder of the school year. One question that keeps getting asked as we are approached at our informational table, or engage students at some of our beginning of the year outreach events is “Tell me what Christian Challenge is all about.” I’ve responded to this inquiry in a variety of ways, seeking to find a succinct and clear way to express the essence of what our campus ministry strives to value and achieve. As I’ve shared before, our ministry’s motto is “Changing the world through God-honoring relationships”, and while these words eloquently express what we hope will be the end result of much of our work, they don’t as much describe the actual process of how we go about initiating and nurturing such relationships. Also, as I begin my fourth year working in campus ministry here in Boulder, I’ve started to become more reflective about the long-term  impact I’m hoping to have on the students into whose lives I’ve been privileged enough to have an opportunity to invest. Last month’s blog post touched on this theme, as I reflected back on some of the special highlights from my first three years here. I’m now in the position where students who I knew when they entered the ministry as freshmen are now starting their final year of college. What is the spiritual legacy that they will carry with them when they graduate and leave our ministry? And is this a legacy which is to some extent transferable? In other words, will they feel properly equipped to be able to share some of these spiritual lessons they have absorbed while in Christian Challenge, regardless of the setting to which their jobs or life circumstances may call them?

 

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With such thoughts in mind I wanted to set out to explain those faith fundamentals which represent the essential truths our ministry hopes to instill students. Just as we have been discussing in the examples from the sports world, learning and practicing the fundamentals are the keys to long-term success, and this holds true spiritually-speaking as well. There are many Scriptures which speak to this, but a few in particular come to mind as I write. First, no one ever summarized the essential duties of Christ followers better than, well, Christ Himself, speaking in Matthew 22:37-40. Here, after having been asked what was the greatest of all commandments, Jesus perfectly summarizes the central intent behind the exhaustive list of 613 Old Testament commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” In a similar fashion, we could go back even to the Old Testament itself only to find how the prophets repeatedly offered a clear summary of the intent and purpose behind all of the provisions of the Law and Covenant given to the nation of  Israel. Micah 6:8—“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” An even more forceful call to return to the faith fundamentals as outlined by the Covenant is found in Amos 5:21-24. There, the Lord rails against all the insincere forms of worship that the Israelites (like we today) offered in lieu of actually putting into practice the lifestyles and heart attitudes that God desired of the Jews. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

With Christian Challenge, we have three main areas of fundamental emphasis: outreach, evangelism, and discipleship. There is a course a good deal of overlap between these three areas, which is as it should be—we want our students to see that they are really all inextricably linked. In addition, we want them to know that this work can only be fully accomplished if their involvement in our campus ministry is supplemented and supported by their active participation in a local church. In emphasizing the ties to the local church, we often remind our students of the value of being part of the larger Baptist family of churches and mission partners. Now, let’s take a closer look now at these three areas of emphasis, and with each one I’ll also provide some key Scriptural references that help to define and pinpoint the spiritual values we look to impart in these different phases of the ministry.

 

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Outreach—Many people might assume that working in campus ministry, especially in a very secular, “unchurched” setting like Boulder, Colorado, one’s first task would be the work of evangelism—getting the Gospel message out to those who’ve never heard it before. But while this is a vitally important component of our ministry, often our work begins initially with outreach. Precisely because so  many around Boulder and at the University of Colorado have never really heard the Gospel before, or have only the most rudimentary background with Christianity, our first strategy is to simply bring them into situations where they can begin to enjoy fellowship with Christians. For many international students, coming from parts of the world such as India, China, and the Middle East, they may never have had a chance to meet Christ followers before. So with Christian Challenge, we are constantly seeking to refine and improve our methods for hosting creative outreach events that will introduce a wide variety of students to our group. On several occasions, students who’ve been checking out a Challenge event for the first time have commented on the diversity of our group. We have undergrads, grad students, transfer students, and even the occasional young person who’s not enrolled at CU, and is just working in the Boulder community. In addition we have a wide geographical diversity represented, with students coming from all over the world, and from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. I think this is in part a result of the many different types of outreaches we plan. We’ve never sought to attract one particular “type” of CU student. In truth it’s very hard to even summarize who would even be a “typical” Colorado student, because CU tends to draw in lots of different people for a wide spectrum of academic, social, and what we might could term “locational” (read—the mountains!) factors. With this in mind, a big part of what we do as a Christian Challenge staff, and in conjunction with our student leadership team is to plan a wide range of different events that can draw in different types of students for an initial contact with our group.

In fact, as I think about the many ways in which we have reached out to CU students, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22 seem fitting: “I have become all things to all men, that I might be all means save some.” Certainly our students have tried to live out this truth, and time and time again have shown great versatility and creativity in coming up with new ways to connect with their peers. Many Colorado students are very much into fitness and the outdoors—not surprising given Boulder’s close proximity to all forms of mountain recreation. So we often plan active events: games of ultimate frisbee on campus, hiking and climbing excursions, ski days in the winter (my personal favorite!), and just this past Saturday, a fun day of riding boats and jet skis at a Denver-area lake. So important is the outdoor, active lifestyle for many CU students that we even have appointed one of our staff interns this fall to focus specifically on coming up with outdoor-related outreach events. For students who like to bond around sports, we’ve held special watch parties for big CU football games. On the other hand, some students enjoy a more relaxed evening in, and so for them we’ve held board game parties, movie nights, or baking/cooking events. We also try to connect with students “where they live”, quite literally speaking. So we’ve organized special outreach events for those CU students, mostly freshmen, who live in the dorms. These have included baking cookies for residents, and offering to take out their trash.

 

For other types of students, especially internationals, we try to think in terms of what might give them a quintessentially “American” experience. We organize a lot of events around holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, the Christmas season, and Valentine’s Day in particular, to allow our international friends the chance to experience celebrations and customs they likely would not encounter back in their home countries. In addition, we hold special ethnic diner nights that allow internationals to showcase the food and culture of their homelands. Also, sometimes international students, most of whom do not have cars, just need some very practical assistance such as being given a ride to a grocery store or a Walmart to do some shopping. Lastly, a major service we can provide to international students, which can also double as an outreach, are English as a second-language classes. With Christian Challenge, and our ministry partners at Horizons, we try to offer informal, conversational English classes that are also fun times of fellowship and learning more about American culture. We are fortunate too that the University offers services to internationals that we can participate in. The most notable example is International Coffee Hour, a weekly time when CU invites all international students to meet up for coffee, snacks, and the chance to practice their English with American conversation partners. Almost always at these events the international students far outnumber the Americans, and so it can be a great opportunity for people in our Christian Challenge group to meet and befriend new students from all over the world.

 

As I think about the outreach component of our campus ministry, a key value that we are trying to teach our students through these events is the importance of Christ-centered hospitality. This is certainly a value expressed frequently in Scripture, and with Christian Challenge we have a weekly event, the “Friday Night Thing”, that particularly embodies the spirit of hospitality we want our students to practice, and our guests and visitors to enjoy. During the semester, we gather every Friday evening at our director’s house for a home-cooked meal, and a time of fellowship. First-time visitors, especially internationals, are often very thrilled to be invited into someone’s home, and furthermore during these times they get to witness our students demonstrating servant hearts. Much of the work in terms of preparing food, serving, and cleaning up afterwards is done by our students, while others focus on making sure that everyone has rides to and from the event, and on equally including all guests in whatever games or activities might follow the dinner. With outreach, our goal is always to move beyond simply initiating fellowship to the next step, where we can begin to build authentic relationships with the students we are meeting. As I mentioned earlier in this post, all of the skills that we hope to equip our Christian Challenge students with are designed to be transferable, and so are not specific to just the campus ministry context. The idea is that students can continue to practice these skills once they are out of school and in the working world. So if we can teach them the value of being hospitable, serving others, and being intentional about finding creative ways to reach out to and connect with a variety of different types of people, they will be better placed hopefully to continue reaching others for Christ once they graduate. Outreach can be tiring, even draining at times, especially at the beginning of the semester when it seems like we are having special events almost every night of the week. And at times students may be frustrated because while they are meeting many new individuals, it can sometimes be hard, especially initially, to gauge the level of long-term spiritual impact of a particular outreach event. So the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:58 are good to keep in mind here: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” As we think about outreach, we also want to stress to our students that this component of our ministry is not confined merely to the initial fall recruitment period. We want them to always be on the lookout for new students who the Lord might be bringing our way, and for them to always be prepared to foster a new relationship that might open the door to a Gospel presentation.

 

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This leads me to our next area of focus within Christian Challenge: evangelism. Just because I mentioned outreach first does not at all imply that we don’t prioritize spreading the Word through sharing testimonies, and telling students how they can enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus. With Christian Challenge, we encourage our students in both direct, and more relational forms of evangelism. Because one never knows when or how the Spirit of the Lord may be at work, it’s good to practice multiple types of evangelistic approaches, and also to never hold back from introducing and identifying with Jesus as early as possible when meeting a new contact for the ministry. I’m mindful of the advice with which Paul exhorts his protégé Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:2—“Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season.” Just as with outreach, we stress to our students that evangelism must be a year-round mentality, and not something that is just emphasized at the beginning of the year. In terms of direct evangelism, we’ve tried a variety of different techniques. During the beginning of the fall semester, we always engage in a campus-wide push to do spiritual surveys. This year alone, we surveyed nearly 500 individuals to gain a sense of their initial spiritual interest and background. In addition, all students on our leadership team, or those who wish to serve on it in the future, are required to take a training class called “Theology of the Gospel.” In this class one of the weekly assignments is to ask different spiritual questions to friends and classmates. We’ve also tried to capitalize on certain times of the year when students might be more open than usual to spiritual overtures, such as during Christmas and around Easter. One year, in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break, we handed out specially designed tracts that discussed the significance of Jesus’s birth. Then just this past spring, we organized a large-scale evangelistic outreach called “Good News Week” leading up to Easter Sunday. This included two collaborative worship services held with other campus ministries, as well as having a Christian Challenge book table where we gave out numerous tracts and copies of apologetic texts like Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter and Lee Strobel’s Case for Easter. With direct evangelism, one doesn’t really have any prior context or relationship to the person whom you are interacting with. And often, unless a more in-depth conversation happens to develop, they might not be any chance for follow up. However just as Matthew 13’s Parable of the Sower teaches, there is no way to know who, upon hearing the Word might eventually be receptive, and so there are certainly seasons and times within the life of a campus ministry when it makes sense to “sow broadly.” Also, similar to the verse from 2 Timothy 4:2, one of my other favorite passages on evangelism comes from 1 Peter 3:15—“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” It’s important for our students to learn about more direct methods of evangelism that can be implemented but that are still not so confrontational that they instantly turn people away. Although many people, including myself are at times not naturally as comfortable with this “cold call” approach, it’s a valuable lesson in stepping out in faith, and seeing how God can work even when we have no context or relationship to help foster a spiritual conversation with someone.

 

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But as our earlier-stated motto reflects, the heart of Christian Challenge’s efforts to tell others about Jesus could be considered relational. This is where the outreach component of our ministry connects substantially to the work of evangelism. Our goal, upon meeting students through the different fellowships and social events we organize is to then build a relationship that will allow for the opportunity for them to hear our testimony, and learn how they too can have a personal relationship with Jesus. One of the main things that we teach our group is how to have a Gospel Appointment. This is time when you meet up with a ministry prospect for food or coffee in order to learn more about them. You find out about their story, perhaps details about their family, hobbies, interests, and what led them to attend CU. You also find out if they have any spiritual background or beliefs. A special effort is placed though on listening well, and letting the other person talk without interruption or impatience on our part. Then, there is a brief transition in which we teach students to share a little bit about Christian Challenge and our activities. Lastly, and most importantly, they then segue into a closing sequence where they share some of their own testimony as well as a Gospel illustration which succinctly outlines the plan of salvation. We teach our students an easy-to-remember system that using just one verse, Romans 6:23, and a visual diagram “The Bridge”, that helps to make some of these spiritual concepts a little more tangible, especially for someone who perhaps has never before heard the Gospel message. We present the Gospel Appointment to our students not as a rigid checklist that has to be followed, but more of a loose structure and a basic foundation within which a lot of flexibility remains for them to highlight aspects of their own Christian story and personality. We also teach that the Gospel Appointment is very often not the conclusion of one’s evangelistic efforts, but likely just the beginning. Numerous follow-up appointments and discussions are often necessary to help someone gain a clear understanding of the Gospel. But relational evangelism allows for us to be patient, because having built a genuine friendship with another person, there needn’t be pressure for them to have to make a spiritual decision before they’re ready. At the same time, we do want to cultivate within our ministry a sense of “holy urgency”, along the lines of 2 Corinthians 6:2—‘Behold now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” In everything that we do as a ministry teaching-wise, we try to always keep in mind the fact that we may have people showing up at a weekly meeting or a Bible study small group that have no prior experience with Christianity. Thus we want to make all of our content evangelistic in nature, and never only directed towards Christian “insiders.” With all of our work in evangelism, we share the desire of Paul in Colossians 4:3-6—“To speak the mystery of Christ…that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”

 

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As a natural extension of our evangelism around campus, we also teach students in Christian Challenge to embrace missions, and develop a heart for the nations. This could begin organically enough from working with international students at CU, or perhaps God has specially placed a particular country, region, or people group on their hearts. Certainly when it comes to missions, I am reminded of the blessing of being part of a campus ministry that is affiliated with a larger church network. As a Southern Baptist group, Christian Challenge benefits enormously from the extensive network of SBC missions partnerships that have been developed across America and around the world. We offer our students many different opportunities to be involved in such partnerships. We always have a spring break mission trip, which in the past has led us to work with SBC church planters and other Baptist-associated ministries in Denver, as well as in Los Angeles. Each summer, students also have the chance to talk part in a Denver-based mission enterprise called “Project Impact.” This involves them taking full-time jobs, while receiving specialized spiritual training in the evenings and on weekends, with a particular focus towards learning how to share and live out their faith in the workplace. We also offer numerous chances for overseas missions trips to students. Q-Joy international is an organization started by our former director Bobby Pruett, which specializes in training students to work with special needs children from a Christian missions context. They organize both a summer training program for students in Denver as well as a subsequent overseas trip to work with schools for these children in Kenya. Then as I have already shared in a previous post, I had the exciting opportunity this summer to travel to Germany, where we have partnerships with three different campus ministries that are connected to the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. The hope is that I will be able to return to Germany next summer with a full student team to continue our missions partnerships there. We’ve also been fortunate enough to host two different mission teams here in Boulder in just the past year–a group from the University of Alabama’s Baptist campus ministry in the spring, and then a team from my former church, First Baptist Montgomery (AL), this August. Our theme verse for the fall 2017 semester with Christian Challenge is taken from Habakkuk 2:14—“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” That is why we always will prioritize evangelism, and look to use every available opportunity to leverage the relationships God has given us to give as many CU students as possible the chance to hear and respond to the claims of the Gospel!

 

As a necessary corollary to the work of both outreach and evangelism, Christian Challenge’s third area of emphasis is in discipleship. This is a topic I’ve already written about in the blog, because I’ve personally benefitted form some outstanding mentors, and the chance to disciple others has long been one of the most rewarding aspects of campus ministry for me. When students become actively involved in Christian Challenge, the next step is always to encourage them to enter into a discipleship relationship with a staff member or an older student. In fact, one of the requirements for participants in our student leadership team is that they all must be discipled by a staff member. The optimal situation is one in which our older students become engaged in “two-way” discipleship. They are being mentored spiritually by a staff member, while in turn they are investing into the life of a younger student in the ministry. Discipleship within Christian Challenge seeks to emphasize certain key, fundamental spiritual disciplines which we feel confident will serve our students well later in life, regardless of where the Lord may lead them, vocationally, or ministerialy—speaking. These disciplines include studying Scripture together, Scripture memorization, prayer, and talking through spiritual problems/challenges in their lives. Discipleship meetings can take many different forms as well. Sometimes it may be a one-on-one setting, perhaps gathered for a meal. But at other times, discipleship might happen as part of a shared life experience. I enjoy going skiing with students I’m discipling, because we have all day together to talk about a whole host of life and spiritual topics in a relaxed setting. Disicpleship opportunities also frequently can overlap with the other two main components of Christian Challenge’s work—outreach and evangelism. I’ve often invited a student I was discipling to come along and attend a Gospel Appointment with me, or to go and do some spiritual surveys together. But discipleship gets at the heart of one of the main overall goals we have with all of our ministry work in Christian Challenge—that these lessons become transferable, something that can be passed down from our current group of student leaders to the next generation of collegians that will come through the ministry. It is this generational transfer of spiritual wisdom that Paul advocates in 2 Timothy 2:2—“And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” As I discussed with both outreach and evangelism, discipleship is a continual, year-round process. Every student progresses at his or her own unique pace, and certainly we never attempt to teach or instill a “one size fits all approach.” However, these shared spiritual disciples—revolving around Scripture, prayer, and living out one’s faith form the core of those lessons that we are seeking to instill in students through the process of individual teaching and investing in another’s life.

Ultimately the fundamentals, by their very nature, are those lessons and truths that we return to again and again in order to achieve success—whether in the world of sports, or in the spiritual realm. My most fervent desire in campus ministry, and what I believe will be the truest indicator of any success on my part, will be the extent to which decades from now, our students will still be able to retain and build upon some of the spiritual lessons and tools that we have equipped them with. Much of what we do may currently be centered on the particular context of the university campus, but the full impact of our ministry is best appreciated off campus, and away from Boulder, as the students we have equipped to make a Kingdom difference go out into the various parts of the world the Lord has called them to.

Looking back to look forward

It’s hard to believe, but I have now been in Boulder for a full three years, serving on staff with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado. Having celebrated a recent birthday, I’ve been in a bit of a reflective mood, and so I wanted to take an opportunity to look back just for a few minutes at the past years of ministry here in Colorado. I was reminded recently how such reflection can be beneficial not only for understanding the past, but for looking ahead to the future too when I read an interesting quote from the 19th century English writer and Christian, Margaret Fairless Barber. “To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” In this spirit, I want to reflect based on several different categories that will enable me to ponder over these past three years and also help in looking forward towards what God has in store for the future. I’ll reflect on God’s faithfulness during my time in Boulder, some of the personal highlights I’ve experienced while on staff with the ministry, a few of the particular challenges I’ve faced, and lastly some future hopes and goals I have for myself in conjunction with the ministry. I hope that reading this post perhaps motivates you to take periodic stock of how God has been at work in your life. Regardless of what has happened, I believe being open  about your spiritual experiences, and willing to share them with others can provide a great encouragement for someone else who may be in need, or has experienced something similar.

 

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God has been faithful!! This is the first point I want to reflect on, and honestly these four words could be a succinct summary of my entire time in Boulder so far. From the spring of 2014, when with some trepidation and anxiety I began support raising in preparation to move to Boulder, the Lord has provided. I realize that it can sometimes sound cliché when so many people in ministry talk about Divine provision. And I never want to be dismissive or flippant towards those who are still actively waiting for the Lord to act, or are struggling to continue trusting Him and His goodness during seasons of trial or doubt. Having said that, I do believe that raising your own support gives a special insight into God’s generosity, plan, and provision as expressed through His churches and His people. When I first considered the possibility of going on staff with Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder, I was excited about the ministry and the chance to work with students in a challenging mission field. Yet I wasn’t sure exactly how the experience of support raising, and developing ministry partners would go. I had grown up assuming that all missionaries were fully-funded by churches or missions agencies, and perhaps too in my mind there were some lingering doubts and pride that God had to slowly help me deal with. Doubts–in the sense of a skepticism that I’d actually be able to raise enough money to move to Boulder before the start of the fall 2014 semester. Even though I had heard many amazing “God-stories” from others on staff with Christian Challenge, or friends who served with groups like Cru, I still wasn’t sure if the same things could actually happen to me! In addition, there was some pride involved, because after so many years spent completing my education, including nearly four years to earn a Master’s of Divinity, a selfish part of me felt more or less entitled to a traditional, full-time, paid ministry position.

 

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But both of these barriers were gradually eroded over several months in which I had the opportunity to see God at work through the support-raising process. I’ve posted about this before, and I could honestly write pages and pages more about all of the unique blessings that come through raising support, but I’ll enumerate just a few here. First, through support raising, I have been powerfully and continuously reminded of the Lord’s generosity through His followers. I know that the majority of those who support me also tithe faithfully to their local churches, and in many cases also give to support other missionaries and ministries. But their willingness to equally invest in me is illustrative of a principle once shared with me by Jay Wolf, pastor of my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. Jay told me that from his own experience, one hallmark of a faithful Christ follower in financial terms is how their giving capacity expands. Now simple math might dictate that the more a person is already giving to support different ministries as well as tithe to their church, the less likely they would be to embrace the opportunity to support a new ministry that might come along, such as mine. And yet as I have often found the opposite to be true in my own experience. Thus it’s the very people who are already giving most generously elsewhere who are likely to also add me to their support list. In relation to the generosity I’ve witnessed, I’m certainly mindful of Paul’s observation from 2 Corinthians 9:7—“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Again and again, my ministry partners and supporters have expressed to me how glad and joyful they are for the opportunity to support me and this serves as a constant reminder for me to cultivate a similar attitude when I tithe to my church or support other ministries. But I would be very remiss if in talking about support I only discussed the financial dimensions. Because I’ve also been the fortunate recipient of amazing prayer support and so many words of encouragement and affirmation. I have ministry partners that pray for me daily, which is such a humbling thing to consider when I know that many of them have plenty of other family members, friends, and concerns to remember. And on so many occasions, my day has been brightened by a supporter who took the time to send an encouraging email, card, or text message. I can very much identify with the way Timothy must have felt having someone like Paul in his life, a person who as is recorded in 2 Timothy 1:3-6, builds up his protégé through continual prayer, and timely encouragement that calls the younger Timothy to remain faithful to his spiritual heritage. In general, raising support has allowed me to both make many new friends, and also stay in touch with a great number of old acquaintances, with the common thread being that these are people whom God has placed in my life to make a difference with their giving, their prayers, and their encouragement. Thinking about these dear brothers and sisters in Christ certainly serves as a powerful motivation for me to go out each day and strive to make a difference in the lives of our Christian Challenge students at CU. Support raising is also very literally one of the main factors that prompted me to start this blog, Mile High Hallelujah, as a means of staying in touch with my ministry partners. Writing my monthly blog entries and prayer newsletter updates is my means of keeping these partners involved and current with the ministry they support. But it is also a very helpful and fulfilling way for me to reflect at regular intervals on how God is working in my life, almost like a spiritual diary. Overall, and as perhaps a cumulative effect of experiencing God moving in these different ways, I’ve come to view support raising not as preparation for ministry, but as another facet of ministry itself, and one that has brought many unique blessings into my life.

 

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            Having mentioned Paul and Timothy earlier now brings me to another way in which God’s faithfulness has been powerfully manifested over these last three years in Boulder—through the co-workers He has richly blessed me with. I’ve been lucky enough to serve alongside an outstanding staff with Christian Challenge. In fact it was a strong and immediate connection with Christian Challenge director Bobby Pruett that first led me to consider moving to Boulder after we initially met back in the fall of 2013. Bobby’s love for the Lord, and his enthusiasm for disciple-making in the university community was contagious, and it has been a privilege to serve alongside him, his daughter Bethany, and Derek Gregory as well as many other students who’ve fulfilled roles as part-time staff interns. Being part of a good team is so important, and in addition to the Christian Challenge staff, I’ve had other important Christian mentors in my life, including my parents, my pastor back in Alabama, Jay Wolf—and too many others to list here. But the heart of my day-to-day work with Christian Challenge is about building relationships with students. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many outstanding young men and women here over the last several years—vibrant champions for Christ who are going to go on and make a tangible impact for the Kingdom in a variety of different fields as they are called. And I’m indebted too not just to the Christian students I’ve worked with, but to those who’ve been skeptical, questioning, and uncertain. As I’ve heard these students talking about their doubts and objections towards Christianity, I’ve been forced to constantly reflect upon how I can do a better job of making the Gospel relevant to people on the “outside”. I’ve also gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the challenge that some people face when considering surrendering their life to the Lord. As Christian author Frederick Buechner once wrote “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Certainly working amongst such bright and clear-thinking students as can be found at CU has helped my own faith to stay vibrant and not stagnate. On the bottom of the prayer cards that I’ve given out to supporters is inscribed Matthew 9:37-38—“The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” God has lavishly demonstrated His faithfulness by providing me with an outstanding group of ministry partners, staff, and students who have all been co-laborers with me in this harvest!!

 

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First Baptist Montgomery

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East Boulder Baptist

And while I often think of my ministry in terms of the individuals who’ve been involved, I have to be equally thankful for the powerful fellowship and support I have received from the Body of Christ as represented by the Church. Two congregations in particular have been fundamental to my ability to raise support and serve here in Boulder. First is my sending church, First Baptist Montgomery, and then my current home church, East Boulder Baptist. These two bodies of believers have provided me with numerous opportunities to preach, teach Sunday school classes, and share with members about the ministry of Christian Challenge. And so even though these last three years have seen me immersed in the world of campus ministry, I feel more connected than ever to the work and purpose of the local church. I certainly strive to remind our students on a regular basis about the importance of finding a connection with a local church in Boulder, because our campus ministry is never seeking to take the place of a church within Christian life. Related to the blessing that God has provided me through these two churches, I can also reflect on the importance for me of staying connected to the Baptist denomination. Now certainly I’ve always considered myself ecumenical, and my time in Boulder has reinforced for me the importance of being Kingdom-minded, and focusing on how different Christian groups, whether campus ministries or churches, can find common ground as they seek to serve the Lord. I have some good friends involved in campus ministry who serve with groups such as Cru, Intervarsity, and Navigators, and these are all outstanding ministries that have impacted many lives for Jesus over the years. But I do feel very fortunate to be part of the larger Baptist family. Since I raise support as a Baptist campus minister, all of my administrative costs and fees are absorbed by the convention, meaning that I get to keep 100% of the money I raise, which is a rarity in the world of self-supporting ministry. Although Christian Challenge’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t necessarily the first or even primary thing that draws students to our group, they too have all benefitted from being part of a larger network not just of campus ministries, but crucially too of churches and missions partnerships. Whenever Christian Challenge takes part in spring break or summer missions projects, we avail ourselves of this incredibly wide-ranging and fruitful network of SBC church plants, missionaries, and ministries that we can connect and partner with. It makes it so much easier than having to go it alone and seek out groups to work with independently. So we do our best as Christian Challenge staff to educate our students about the importance of being part of a denominational team, and we share with them some of the fundamental theological values of what it means to be Baptist, and heirs to a spiritual tradition rooted in the Protestant Reformation. We realize that all of them of course won’t continue to be involved in Baptist-affiliated churches or ministries later in life, but hopefully during their time in the group, they’ve been instilled with some spiritual values that represent the best of the Baptist tradition, and will serve them well in whatever branches of Christian life their future calling leads them to.

 

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Reflecting back on these three years in Boulder, God has indeed been faithful, and there are many personal highlights I could talk about, special moments and memories that help underscore why I feel so blessed to have served here. I have thoroughly enjoyed every opportunity I’ve had to speak at Christian Challenge weekly meetings, whether at CU-Boulder, or at other schools around Colorado. College students are such an attentive and keen audience, and their intelligence and willingness to be challenged has been a great source of encouragement for me as I’ve thought about how best to both convict and encourage them, all the while staying faithful to the mandates of Scripture that should bind any sound Biblical teaching. One-on-one discipleship is something that is at the heart of our ministry, as reflected in the Christian Challenge motto—“changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” Certainly for me, as I’ve shared in earlier blog posts, the opportunity to mentor students has been among the most rewarding aspects of serving in campus ministry. I’ve been able to forge some amazing friendships with these young men, and in some cases even see them begin to pass on their knowledge and experience to younger students. In addition, I’ve been fortunate enough to have so many great mentors of my own, as I’ve already mentioned, which has helped keep me inspired, and excited about the chance to invest in someone else’s life. The high degree of individual attention that we can offer students to facilitate their spiritual growth is definitely one of the unique facets of campus ministry that can sometimes be hard to replicate in other ministry settings such as churches. However, my hope is that our students have learned the importance of spiritually investing into another, and that this is a practice that they will be able in some manner to continue later in life. Working with international students has also been an undoubted highlight for me. I’ve built relationships with students from Brazil, Japan, China, Panama, India, Ireland, Sweden, Taiwan, Singapore, Denmark, and Pakistan, just to name some of the countries that have been represented in our ministry. The rich cultural exchanges, learning about another country’s food, history, language, and customs have been fascinating in and of themselves. But an even greater thrill for has been the chance to share Jesus with these representatives of the nations, and see some of them come to faith in our ministry. And even for those who did not make a profession of faith, the knowledge that because of Christian Challenge, their time in America was brightened with warm spiritual fellowship and the chance to hear the Gospel message gives me a great deal of fulfillment. Working with internationals reminds me constantly about lessons of hospitality and cultural sensitivity that I believe have strong Biblical roots. At the same time, I’ve been continually reminded of the international nature of the Gospel, which can transcend all cultural barriers. I truly feel that one of the greatest blessings in being an American Christian in 2017 is the way in which the Lord has graced us with the priceless opportunity to reach out to His children from around the world who’ve literally come to our doorstep. I never want to take that opportunity for granted, or squander it, for many of these students will only be in our country for a short time, then perhaps never to return.

 

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Working with internationals has also provided a natural springboard to missions work. For me, going back to my childhood and adolescence, missions has always started locally. Some of my first ministry experiences back in Montgomery involved volunteering through our church’s community ministries outreach, known as the Caring Center. Taking some of this experience, I’ve been so proud of the way our students have embraced opportunities to serve those beyond just the university community. Compassion in the 303, our outreach to Boulder’s homeless, was actually started as an initiative of some Christian Challenge students. It’s been an honor to serve alongside many of our group who’ve selflessly donated their time and money to interact with some of Boulder’s most marginalized inhabitants, offering food, prayer and intentional conversation. From Boulder, our outreach has extended into Denver. On two different spring break mission trips, Christian Challenge has served in Colorado’s largest city, working first to help SBC church planters, and then on another occasion, to assist with a Baptist ministry based in apartment complexes, which are among those parts of the city that have been least reached from an evangelistic standpoint. Our students’ Christ-like dedication in all of these service projects around their community has been exemplary. And then there have been mission trips further afield, to Los Angeles a few years back on spring break, and then of course this summer for me to Germany. We’ve also begun to host missions teams, drawing on some of my ministry connections back to my home state. In March, a group came from the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Alabama, and in just a few weeks, another team will come from First Baptist Montgomery to help us with our big evangelistic push prior to the start of the fall semester. Having come out of a church background that always valued missions, and prioritized the work of the Great Commission, I’ve been thrilled to see these values replicated in our campus ministry at CU-Boulder.

For all of the ways in which I’ve noted God’s faithfulness, and enjoyed some amazing highlights, there have also naturally been some challenges over these past three years. But I see them more as faith-building opportunities rather than actual obstacles, and I sense that there are some particular spiritual lessons that God wishes to impart to me in each instance. When I first arrived in Boulder, noting the spiritual demographics, I expected to encounter a high degree of spiritual hostility, such as militant atheism, or strongly anti-Christian prejudices amongst those student body and in the community. For the most part this expectation has been unfounded, but what has indeed proven to be a challenge is what could be termed a widespread spiritual indifference, or apathy. As Paul astutely observes in 1 Corinthians 1:18—“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”. I’m still learning in each individual situation how best to react when people just don’t seem to care one way or another about spiritual matters, and when the thing that is keeping them from pursuing Jesus is not so much any great theological objection, but simply an inability to see any spiritual inquiry and pursuit as being worth their time. Another challenge is achieving consistency within our ministry. While I’ve been lucky enough to be around some students who are truly “pace-setters” in their 1 Corinthians 15:58 faithfulness and dedication, there are other students who have frustratingly fallen away. And there doesn’t always seem to be a detectable pattern or reason as to why some students remain inconsistent and non-committal even after years of being connected with our group. I worry about such instances, in particular wondering what will happen once such students graduate, and being out in the working world will likely have much less of a spiritual “support network”  around them than is available to them now in college. I struggle at times with being patient—waiting for God’s plan and purpose to unfold in His own perfect timing. This is especially true when it comes to evangelism, and awaiting the fruits from that. There have been several instances where a student seemed so close to making a profession of faith, and yet still they held back. However there’s been other times equally where I’ve been totally surprised to see the Spirit at work in sudden and unexpected ways. I’m reminded then of the truth of Jesus’ words in John 4:37-38—“For in this the saying is true: One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” Never knowing where we may be in this chain of evangelism—whether preparing good soil, planting seeds, watering them, or harvesting, is a great humbling factor, and teacher of spiritual patience. There have been times when it has been tempting of course also to make comparisons with other ministries. You can always find a group that seems to be growing faster, has more of a presence in certain areas of campus life, and seems in some way to better embody whatever aspects of your ministry you wish to change or improve. I do value learning from other Christian groups, and have really enjoyed the cooperative spirit of a shared sense of values and purpose amongst many of the campus ministries. But I also need to remind myself that God has called our group to be faithful to those students we are able to reach, and not spend too much time focusing on fruitless comparisons. I think that whenever we want to take the focus too much off of ourselves and our own field of ministry to fixate on what others are doing, Jesus reminds us to return to our task at hand. I love how this is illustrated at the end of John’s Gospel in a conversation exchange between the Lord and Peter. John 21:21-22—“Peter seeing him, said to Jesus, ‘But Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”

 

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I entitled this post “looking back to look forward” because even as I’ve reflected upon how these last three years of ministry in Boulder have impacted me spiritually, what I’m most excited about is what lies ahead. I think it’s always good in life to have goals, and project ahead in order to keep oneself focused on a future we can change as opposed to a past that we cannot. Paul certainly considered as much, in Philippians 3:13—“One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” For this next year in Boulder, I have several ministry goals. I want to be more faithful and effective in discipling students. As I shared in my last blog post, this summer’s missions experience in Germany reminded me once more just how critical effective discipleship is to the long-term health of any ministry. We always want the things we teach students in Christian Challenge to be replicable, so that when they graduate, they are equipped spiritually to be successful in whatever ministry or life setting they might find themselves. I’m looking forward also to continuing to expand my role as a facilitator for missions. I’m so excited about the opportunity later this month to host a missions team from my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. I want to continue to cultivate a missions “pipeline” from Alabama to Colorado, giving both churches and campus ministries from my home state the opportunity to come serve alongside us here in Boulder, as well as also possibly connect with the work that many SBC church planters are doing in Denver. From an overseas standpoint, I’m excited about continuing the partnership we have with Connexxion, and their three, soon to be four campus ministries in Germany. I am praying that everything will come together for me to able to lead a full team back to Germany next summer, comprised of CU students and possibly students from some other Colorado schools as well. Ultimately, when I think of ministry goals however, there is inevitably a lot of overlap with my personal spiritual walk and goals. After all, I could never hope to instill in students, or in our ministry, something that I’m not cultivating in myself. So I must remain faithful in essential spiritual disciplines like prayer, Scripture reading, and Scripture memory.

I close this latest post with a sense of profound gratitude for all of the ways that God has blessed me, and enabled me to come to this place in life and ministry. I can only pledge that with His help I will continue to strive to give the best of what I am capable of to the ministry He has called me to here in Boulder. Every one of you who has prayed for me, offered financial support, and even taken the time to read this blog are part of my team, my wonderful family of ministry partners, without whom this would not be possible. So thank you again, and may each of you be able to trace God’s hand as you look back in your own lives, in preparation to then again look forward to the future He has planned for you. God bless!!!

Mission reflections from the Birthplace of the Reformation

Our summer mission team to Braunschweig, Germany, along with some of the students from the ministry

Luther poster in Braunschweig advertising the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation

 

Mission reflections from the Birthplace of the Reformation

            During a year in which we are observing the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, I recently returned from a month in German-speaking Europe, most of that time being spent in Germany itself. I had an amazing experience during this time abroad, and so I want to now share with you about some of what I encountered, filtered through the lens of some different Scriptural passages that have helped me to understand and process my experiences. But before I go any further, I want to preface the rest of my report with the acknowledged fact that in terms of missions experience, I am still very much a newcomer. That was one reason in fact why I wanted to spend some time in Germany myself before leading a full student team there. But I was privileged enough to grow up in a church that really valued the Great Commission, and took Jesus’ command to spread the Gospel seriously. So I have been lucky to stand on the shoulder of some missions giants, people like Pastor Jay Wolf, our missions pastor Brian Gay, Singles minister and missions veteran Kathy Cooper, former FBC community minister Jane Ferguson—all of whom were great models for me in demonstrating the blessing and the responsibility we have as Christians for being witnesses to our faith, whether here in America, or across the ocean somewhere. In addition, in my own current ministry context in Boulder, I’ve served alongside people like Derek Gregory, Bobby Pruett, and his daughter Bethany Pruett, who have inspired me with their stories of missions work, as well as our outstanding students, many of whom are also engaged in missions work, both in America and elsewhere, this summer. I am also aware of and profoundly grateful for the support through prayers and finances of all of my ministry partners. In the most tangible way they are the ones that made it possible for me to make this trip. So with it being fully understood that I still have so much to learn about mission work, as I share these reflections, my goal is that nonetheless people would feel encouraged and empowered. I know that missions can be simultaneously one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of the Christian life. But I want as much as possible to focus on some of the rewards because I hope people can hear about my experiences and think “I could do that too!”. A friend who served with me in Germany this summer, David Worcester, is the leader of Christian Challenge at San Diego State. He has a saying “the best method of evangelism is the kind you actually do”. Simple but true, and it holds true for missions work as well. So I really want my reflections here to prompt people to think less about all of the obstacles or potential hindrances to missions work in their lives, and more about how the obvious rewards from such engagement make it impossible to not want to go.

 

Me alongside Martha Moore and Alex Wille

My time abroad was actually the culmination of several years’ worth of prayer and preparation. Our ministry at CU-Boulder, Christian Challenge, has developed a partnership over the last several years with a European campus ministry known as “Connexxion.” This ministry can trace its beginning back to the early 2000’s when an IMB missionary named Martha Moore, who had a campus ministry background in America, started a ministry in the eastern German city of Jena. Martha had actually come out of the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Oklahoma, where she had been influenced by the long-time director there, Max Barnett. And as I’ve shared in some other posts, Max, until just recently was serving as the state director for Baptist collegiate ministry in Colorado. Martha was then later on staff with Christian Challenge at USC. So she has always been part of the same ministry networks that I am serving in. Then, in early 2016, I met Martha at the annual Life Impact Conference we attend in Colorado Springs. This is a missions-focused gathering of Baptist collegiate ministries from around the Midwest and Western U.S. By the time I finally met Martha in person, I had already heard a great deal about her, and the various ministries she had started around Europe. In fact, when Martha came to America on furlough in 2016, from that initial ministry in Jena, she had expanded her work to two other campuses in Germany, in Braunschweig and Bonn, as well as a stint in Seville, Spain, and was now planning on launching a new campus in Amsterdam. She is a busy lady, with a strong drive for Kingdom work and disciple-making amongst university students, to say the least!! Interestingly enough, her name had also come up back in 2013 when I was helping with Vacation Bible School at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. During a missions emphasis with the children, we watched an IMB-produced video that featured Martha’s story, and specifically her impact on one student she had reached and disciple in Seville.

`           So I was very excited to get to spend some time with her in person at Life Impact, and from there the groundwork began to be laid for my eventual opportunity to participate more directly in her work in Europe. Martha’s contagious enthusiasm and my own interest in working in secular, post-Christian settings (as Boulder has pretty much become) helped draw me increasingly towards the prospect of some kind of missions activity in Europe. Then, a few months after Life Impact, Alex Wille, the leader of the Connexxion ministry in Braunschweig, and someone who had been directly discipled by Martha, came to America for several weeks. In addition to spending time with the Christian Challenge ministry at USC in Los Angeles, Alex also served with us in Boulder for two weeks. During this time we got to be friends, and started discussing the possibility of further collaboration between our respective ministries. After further planning, prayer, and preparation, I decided to come to Germany in the summer of 2017 on what would be a combination hands-on mission experience and also “vision trip.” My goal is to eventually bring a full-sized student team from CU to work in Germany, but as a leader, I wanted to get some firsthand perspective myself before I took a team. There was also a unique opportunity to take part in a conference that would be bringing together students and staff from all of the Connexxion ministries, as well as some other American collegiate ministry personnel.

During this last month I was able to accomplish all of my goals and even had my expectations exceeded. I spent time with the ministry in Braunschweig, then attended the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, and then finally ended by spending a few extra days serving with the ministry in Bonn. Rather than give a more factual report of all of the work we engaged in (which I will do in my prayer newsletter—email me at englishwinslow@yahoo.com to sign up!), here I  want to think in more conceptual terms about the why, the how, and the what if, of missions. And again, please hear my disclaimer—I am in no way claiming to be any sort of expert or even veteran of missions work. But I do hope that my perspective may prove helpful to someone else, and if it can encourage even one other person to further engage in or support missions then it will have been well worth my time to write this post!!

 

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A logical place to begin in Scripture when discussing missions would obviously be the Great Commission, from Matthew 28:18-20. But before we look there, I am struck by how with almost every missions trip the story really begins long before you step on a flight to travel somewhere far away. So often, we hear stories of how God has placed a country, a people group, or a part of the world on someone’s heart months, or maybe even years before someone has the chance to go there with a Gospel-inspired purpose. I’ve already shared a little bit of my own backstory in terms of hearing about Connexxion, and meeting Martha and Alex in America. But someone may be asking, why Germany? or even more broadly why Europe? For many people, thinking about “missions” may automatically mean going to a country that is majority non-Christian, perhaps located within the “10-40 window”. Some people may mistakenly think too that because of the historical prominence of Christianity in a nation like Germany, where after all, the Reformation began, it is a country that has already been “reached.” But statistics would paint a very different picture. According to a 2012 Eurobarometer poll, over a third of the German population considers themselves either atheist/agnostic, or non-religious. Islam meanwhile is a fast-growing religion within the country, given the large population of Turkish immigrants, and the growing numbers of refugees Germany has taken in from majority Muslim countries over the last several years. The two large state churches in Germany, depending on the region are either Catholic or Evangelical (mostly Lutheran). But as I discovered from talking with many different German university students, there are sizable numbers of people in these churches who observance is nominal at best, limited to perhaps once or twice a year on Christmas and Easter.

So my heart had for some time been burdened for countries like Germany that had such a rich Christian heritage, but where for so much of the population now the church, and more importantly Christianity itself had ceased to have much practical significance. While I was studying British history in graduate school, before I went into full-time ministry, I had taken a German class for reading purposes and to fulfill some program requirements. But after that class, I was fascinated with the language, and continued to study it on my own, mostly for reading. Little did I think at the time that I might one day have the opportunity to use some of my German language experience in a missions context! But I mention this just to note how we never know in what ways God can use parts of our past experience to prepare us for something that we may encounter down the road. While I am by no means fluent, having some background with the German language helped me immensely during my time there, which I’ll discuss more a little bit later on.

 

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But now, back to the Great Commission, which as I mentioned seems the most logical starting point for any Scriptural reflections on missions, and most directly  addresses the “why” question as to our motivation to engage in missions in the first place. This passage is of course well known to most all Christians, but it is amazing how every time I come back to it, I seem to find something new that God has highlighted for my attention. Matthew 28:18-20—“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Upon recently rereading this familiar passage, I was struck by how it is not only a call to evangelism, but to discipleship as well. In other words, the Great Commission doesn’t just motivate us to engage in evangelism in order to be obedient to Christ’s last command, but it also instructs us as to a critical part of the “how” of missions. In verse 20, Christ’s command to make disciples of the nations can only be accomplished by the steady, patient work of discipleship. During my time in Germany, I certainly saw the value of discipleship and the legacy it can leave, as well as the damaging results when discipleship perhaps is not as effective as it could be. On the positive side, at the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, the theme was “multiply”. The focus was all on how in our campus ministries we could strive to be more faithful by not just leading people to Christ, and then teaching them how to live as Christians, but also by ensuring that they are able to pass these same truths down to others. This is the great principal illustrated by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:1-2. The apostle is here speaking to his most famous protégé, the young pastor Timothy. “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” We see then how Paul is concerned not merely with his own legacy of evangelism, but he passionately wishes for Timothy’s ministry to be successful as well. And one mark of this success can be if Timothy is able to transfer these teachings down to the next generation of believers. During the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, we learned firsthand about the results of faithful discipleship as we heard some of the many stories about how Martha Moore had invested in students over the decades in five different cities across three different countries. And today, every student leader of a Connexxion ministry in Germany can trace their spiritual heritage back to Martha through either her direct discipleship, or through having been discipled by a student that Martha had discipled. Martha sometimes uses the term “impossible people” to describe some of the unlikely students she has seen make decisions for the Lord. But the true success and lifeblood of her ministry has been that when students came to faith in Christ, she was able, at least with many of them, to push for the next step of beginning a walk in faithful obedience through the spiritual foundations instilled by patient discipleship.

Now of course discipleship can be a very challenging process to navigate through, and sometimes students don’t stay the course, falling away rather than remain faithful. Certainly the secular, God-skeptical culture of much of Western Europe (and Boulder, Colorado to be sure) doesn’t help. The ministries of Connexxion in Germany, and many of our Christian Challenge ministries in the Western U.S. are not particularly large when compared with the campus ministries one could find in other states where I’ve lived, like Alabama and Texas. So discouragement can sometimes creep in, but when it does, ministry staff and students alike should heed the last promise of Christ from the Great Commission, a promise of His presence. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of this pledge from Jesus, perhaps my personal favorite among all the Scriptural promises of our Lord. It should give us an immense sense of reassurance, calm, and peace—and I believe that we in turn should strive to pass these same spiritual blessings on to others, in particular the people we are investing time in through a discipleship relationship! Encouragement then is another critical facet of discipleship—and it seems to me almost without fail that when I think of someone like Martha Moore, or the people who have had a mentoring influence in my own spiritual life, they are people who are in large part defined by possessing this gift of encouragement. Now I think that sometimes encouragement is misunderstood or minimized as simply “saying nice things”, but Biblical encouragement goes so much deeper than that. Listen to Paul again, speaking to Timothy, this time from 2 Timothy 1:5-7: “When I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also. Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Paul’s encouragement to Timothy here then, is not comprised of some idle compliments or ingratiating flattery. Rather these are well-chosen words designed to strengthen Timothy based on the spiritual heritage which Paul has carefully observed in him, and in light of the formidable challenges Timothy will face in the future. Christian encouragement is realistic and is rooted in a desire to build someone up while keeping them ever humble and rooted in a strong reliance upon the power of God. I believe too that by reminding Timothy of his spiritual heritage, Paul is both seeking to strengthen him, but also implying that there should be a strong built-in sense of accountability as well. Timothy has a responsibility before God and in deference to his spiritual forebears to continue the faithful work of the Church which Paul is entrusting to him. The Christian who is built up and encouraged through persistent discipleship can then joyfully seek to live out the exhortation that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:58—“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

 

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But while this mission project opened my eyes anew to the rich spiritual benefits that can be reaped from faithful discipleship, I also sadly saw plenty of contrary evidence as to what happens when discipleship is lacking. I remember one conversation I had with a student in Switzerland, one of the countries I visited briefly before arriving in Germany. Although she no longer considered herself a Christian, she recounted, as did many German students I later met, how she actually had some background in the church. In fact she had gone through confirmation classes at a Protestant church during her adolescence. In this liberal church, the pastor had told the confirmation class among other things that they didn’t have to take Biblical authority seriously—for example, they needn’t believe in the troublesome doctrine of hell. But rather than make Christianity somehow more palatable, even this watered-down doctrine was still not enough to convince the student to stay in the church as a practicing believer. Later, talking to various college and graduate students in Germany, I heard fairly frequently from individuals that they had grown up with some exposure to the church—an infant baptism, confirmation, or maybe just going to church at major holidays with their family. And while there were various subsequent reasons given as to why each individual had fallen away, and decided that Christianity no longer warranted a significant place in their lives, the common thread was that all of these people had been in the church at some point. So from my limited experience, these findings might suggest that the problem in Germany at least is not so much that the Church has ceased to have any influence. People’s lives to some extent are still intersecting with Christian communities, however short-lived that experience might be. But during that time in their lives, apparently nothing significant enough occurs to make them want to stay on as they grow older. Discipleship is somehow lacking. Now please note that I say this in no sort of judgmental attitude. I love Europe, and Germany in particular and my heart is heavy for the spiritual darkness there, and I know there are many, many people in the German church who are trying to push back against it. And I also realize that right here in America, especially where I serve in Boulder, Colorado, and indeed within the midst of our Christian Challenge ministry, effective discipleship remains an elusive aspiration at times. There are certainly students who I have puzzled over how to reach effectively, and I have grieved to see some fall away, despite my best efforts to keep them involved in the ministry and connected to me personally. So in no way can I claim to have cracked any code as regards to how to do discipleship most effectively. I know too that in the final analysis, as that great German Martin Luther once said “Every man must do two things alone: he must do his own believing, and his own dying.” So in this sense then, discipleship is ultimately dependent on just how willing an individual is to be teachable, and the extent to which they allow God to be at work in their lives.

Thinking once more of the “why” of missions, a question that I know I’ve had before is “why do we have to leave America to do missions?” On the one hand, there is a short answer to that—we don’t! Certainly living in a place like Boulder, where on Sunday mornings the preferred activities for the majority of residents would be mountain biking, hiking, running, skiing—almost anything besides going to church, I am very aware that in my own backyard, and around the CU campus is a vast mission field. That’s one big reason I felt God calling me to move to such a place to pursue campus ministry. But in my own life at least, foreign missions has come about as a natural extension of the work I do here in America. Missions has always been a progression for me. It has started very locally. Unlike some people, for whom an early missions trip proved to be a formative spiritual experience, for me, missions began literally with crossing the street. My home church, First Baptist Montgomery has long utilized its downtown location to serve the needs of the surrounding community. And right across the street from our main sanctuary is the Community Ministries branch of the church, known commonly as the “Caring Center.” There I got some of my first ministry experience working in a food bank and a thrift clothing store. It always seemed natural to me to begin with the spiritual needs I saw right on my own doorstep, and see from that how God might touch my heart for a wider circle of influence. And that is how it has happened in Boulder too. When I first arrived in Colorado in August of 2014, my priority was to become comfortable in the new culture I found myself in. Before I thought about going overseas, I needed to learn how to reach students at CU-Boulder. But over time, a natural progression towards wider mission fields naturally occurred. Our students were motivated to want to have an impact not just on the CU campus, but in the Boulder community, so we engaged the local homeless population through an outreach called “Compassion in the 303”. At the same time, I felt like I had been called to Colorado not just to be a witness to college students, but also to share my faith with friends and people living in Boulder who might not have anything at all to do with the University community. The circle then widened beyond Boulder to include Denver, where we have engaged in missions work during the last two Spring Breaks, such as helping out church planters and working with a ministry based in apartment complexes. Christian Challenge’s influence has gone beyond the state of Colorado as well to touch other parts of America. During our Spring Break in 2015, we went to California to serve in a variety of capacities around the Los Angeles area. This March, we hosted a mission team from the University of Alabama that served alongside us at the CU campus, and in August we will welcome another team from my home church, FBC Montgomery. In addition, one of my focuses with Christian Challenge, as I have shared before, is ministry to international students. I have had the privilege to connect with students from Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Italy, Japan, Panama, Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and South Africa while I’ve been at CU. These experiences have naturally helped open my eyes to wider opportunities for overseas ministry and reminded me of God’s great heart for the nations. And as I have already described, God used people and events in my life to plant in my heart the seed for an eventual participation in the work of these German campus ministries called “Connexxion.” All of this is illustrated by a verse from the prophet Isaiah. Although he is called first to preach to the children of Israel, and call them to return to faithful Covenant living, Isaiah soon realizes that his mission’s implications stretch far beyond the fate of just one people group. Isaiah 49:6—“Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My Salvation to the ends of the earth.”

 

Having an exercising a spiritual vision that extends beyond your own immediate context for ministry can thus naturally lead you to increasingly widespread missions involvement. In this way, another missions “why” then becomes a “how.” In other words, in what way does God touch our hearts to prompt us to begin caring about people, cultures, and lives far beyond the sphere of our own daily activity?? Well essentially He expands our vision. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but when I logically seek to follow that thought to its conclusion, considering what it means to have one’s vision expanded in a spiritual sense, I think of being able to see into the future. As we just saw from the Scriptural passage, Isaiah was gifted by God to be able to sense that his calling might somehow impact members of the nations, Gentiles, that he would never even meet. In the same way, God can touch us, especially perhaps in those moments that we feel discouraged and maybe even question how much good we are accomplishing through all of our mission activity. The Lord can show us through His scripture what will be the sure and certain conclusion one day of all of our Kingdom  work, the great goal towards which every missions endeavor points, however partially or incompletely. It is the portrait given in Revelation 7:9-10—a glimpse into the very Throne Room of Heaven. “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

 

At the University of Cologne campus, with my German friend Jonas, getting ready to do some spiritual surveys!

Thus knowing how the great Redemption story will one day end should give us an enormous amount of confidence to continue forward with our work. We also needn’t burden ourselves with a feeling of responsibility in the sense that someone else’s salvation is dependent on whether or not they hear the Gospel from us! We know that God will accomplish His purposes, and will bring representatives from all of the nations together on that great day in Heaven’s throne room. But whenever we decline an opportunity to join where God may be at work in the mission field, we miss out on the chance to gain a blessing by participating in such Kingdom-building work. While I was at the Connexxion Conference, I got a chance to be inspired by the vision casting of Martha as she talked about her vision for the future of the ministry, a project she calls “Boundless.” The idea is to continue to expand the work she has been doing on different campuses in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Teams will come from America for a year-long experience that will include first partnering with one of the established campus ministries, and then setting out to start a new ministry at a different campus. The first campus chosen for expansion was actually the University of Cologne, and we were able to go there and do some spiritual “scouting” there during the Connexxion Conference. Martha Moore has had such a successful career as an IMB missionary because she is able to take the vision God gives her for one particular city, such as Jena, or Braunschweig, and then she translates that to something that is repeatable and transferable to a different city, maybe even a different country. In the meantime, the ministries that she leaves behind continue to flourish because she has discipled student leaders who will then in turn raise up new leaders, all in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:1-2.

 

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Related to vision casting, another spiritual trait that was certainly evident among the students and staff of the Connexxion ministries in Germany is that they are Kingdom-minded. This can come across in many different ways, but in essence it means they are focused on the big picture, and don’t get distracted by what we might call “small dreams.” One of the speakers at the Connexxion Conference was Robbie Nutter, leader of the Christian Challenge ministry at Kansas State. He taught during one session from Mark 10, the story where James and John came to Jesus to request special seats of honor next to Him in heaven. Robbie used this story to ask the provocative question, “Are small dreams keeping you from Christ?” Now certainly there is nothing wrong from time with being honored or recognized. Everyone enjoys feeling appreciated, and being singled out for a word of praise or encouragement. But as we work in ministry and in missions, is our primary motivation to win the praise and recognition of our fellow men and women? Or are we focused on the Kingdom, to the extent that we don’t mind being overlooked, allow the spotlight to be on others, and don’t even care who gets the credit, as long as God is being glorified, and His work is continuing? This is the essentially the message of Jesus in John 4:37-38—“For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I have sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labors.” So in this Kingdom work, we are all simply one part of the process and we leave the end results to God, and are able to be open-handed, realizing that only through a selfless, team effort, can great things be accomplished for the Lord.

I say this because I’m fully aware that often when church folks gather to talk about the mission field, Europe is not the “glamorous” part of the world to highlight. We don’t hear as many stories of mass baptisms, churches being planted overnight, or fearful persecutions—the dramatic events that sometimes accompany missionary testimonies in other parts of the world. And as I mentioned earlier, some American Christians may even have the outdated idea that Europe has already been “reached.” But the courageous students and staff of the campus ministries we worked with in Germany are just as much on the point for Jesus as anyone I’ve ever met. And the importance of their mission field has nothing to do with how much recognition it gets in American churches, or how many IMB staff members are allotted there, and everything to do with the great spiritual needs that are apparent around the country, and so acutely felt in its institutions of higher learning. Certainly I recognize and respect the call to bring the Gospel to many of the difficult places that lie within the 10-40 window, and the urgency preached by people like David Platt to provide Gospel access to unreached people groups. Everyone working in those settings has my utmost respect, and I even understand the need for a special priority of resources and mobilization to those parts of the world. But with that being said, it’s also ok for God to call some people to other parts of the globe, where while the cultural context is quite different, the spiritual darkness is just as real!!

 

Practicing my German with some students from the University of Bonn during a cookout we held in a park near the banks of the Rhine River

I talked at the outset of this post about how I wanted to make missions seem possible for everyone, and really encourage people to think about how God may be calling them to a mission field. In that spirit, I wanted to focus mostly on the positive things that I learned during this past month abroad. However it would be false for me to insinuate that missions is only about reaping spiritual benefits. As anyone who’s taken even the briefest short-term trip knows, the mission field is both a place where we can experience God’s bounty in unexpected and powerful ways, but also a place where we can face some of the strongest spiritual attacks, obstacles, and discouragements. So I want to address the third missions question—“what if”. Because if we’re honest, for many of us there is always a degree of fear lurking in the background when we think about foreign missions. Even though in years past, people would have considered Germany a safe travel destination, the recent rise in terrorist attacks there, and across Europe, made me slightly on edge as I prepared to travel there. Our team even filled out a special IMB insurance policy to cover us in case we were affected in any way by a terrorist event. But beyond such dramatic fears, often the obstacles we confront in the mission field take on a more personal, but no less challenging aspect. For me, one big challenge to embrace was my use of the language. Even though I knew that many of the Germans we’d be working with spoke good English, I had put in a fair amount of time over the years studying German, and I am convinced that this is not by accident. God uses circumstances and interests like that in our life to leverage for the Gospel, if we allow Him to. But for all of my language preparation, this would be my first time ever to be “immersed” in the language 24/7. After a few days of traveling in Vienna where I tried to use German as much as possible for things like ordering food or buying tickets, I noticed first of all how tiring it could be to try and “live” in a language besides my native tongue. I began to grow apprehensive. Would I actually be able to talk about spiritual things in German with college students that I didn’t even know?? Once I arrived in Braunschweig, I began to look for as many opportunities as I could find to practice my German—speaking at restaurants, in shops, and conversing with students in the Connexxion ministry. It was here that I felt all over again a special affinity for international students! Like me, they were still learning this challenging new language (although their German was far superior to mine), and they were very patient to help me along in our halting, stumbling conversations. I was immediately aware too of how much greater the challenge is for international students who come to America. At least in Germany, whenever I had trouble with the language, there was almost always someone there who could help explain the word I needed in English. But internationals who come to America are rarely extended such courtesy. They are expected to be able to fully function in English only from the time they arrive.

 

With a missions team from USC that I served alongside in Bonn

In addition to practicing my German some with the students in Connexxion, I enjoyed going to one of the largest Baptist churches in Germany, also in Braunschweig, and heard an excellent sermon in German. Later at the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, I was able to attend one of the workshop sessions on discipleship which was also held in German. God used these teaching opportunities through a different language in a special way I believe. So often, when listening to Bible teaching, the greatest enemies we must fight against are distractions of every conceivable kind that come into our mind and threaten to divert us from the topic at hand. Our mind can wander easily because we are able to half-way listen to someone speaking in English and still also be thinking about something else at the same time. But when I hear a message in German, I have no choice but to fully attentive! I have to hang on every word to be able to properly understand, and it struck me later that this is the attitude and the posture we should adopt any time the Word of God is spoken or taught! During the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, we made two different day trips to the Universities in Cologne and Bonn respectively in order to engage students on campus in spiritual surveys. Then, once the conference concluded, I went to Bonn for several more days to help serve alongside a student mission team from USC, and we again engaged in spiritual surveys with the students at the university there. It was these spiritual surveys that I was most nervous about beforehand. Because in all honesty this type of “cold-call” evangelism where you have no prior connection to the person can be challenging for even back in my usual ministry setting at CU-Boulder. And while I had already gotten in some good practice speaking German, it had been mostly with people who were already part of the Connexxion ministry. They had been patient and polite with me as I had tried to use the language, but how would it go with complete strangers? Maybe they would resent me interrupting their studies, relaxing, or conversations  to have a talk about potentially awkward, spiritual topics with a clearly less-than-fluent German speaker. Perhaps they would even harbor some anti-American sentiment when they learned where I was from, or would be fearful and suspicious hearing about a campus ministry, since such groups are much less common in the German university culture than back home. Maybe with my uncertain command of German, I would say the wrong thing or confuse them with my questions. These were all among the fears that ran through my head, most of them honestly lies from the Enemy.

 

As always in such moments, I found comfort and reassurance in God’s Word. A few passages stood out for me during this time. In Exodus 4:10-12, Moses is offering excuses to God as to all the reasons why he feels inadequate to be the Lord’s messenger. But God’s response echoes to us down through the ages as a reassurance and reminder of where true spiritual power comes from. “Then Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” Then I thought too, of Paul’s self-confession in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5—“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

 

A time of worship at Alex’s apartment in Braunschweig

So it was certainly a comfort to reflect that two of the mightiest men the Lord ever raised up, Moses and Paul, were both somewhat lacking in self-confidence as to their own ability to communicate the message to others effectively. As a result of course, they were that much more dependent on God’s power which is how the Lord wants it to be for all of us. And for me then, there was a real spiritual reason for my wanting to use German as much as possible during my missions work. Sure a part of it is because I have put a lot of time and effort into trying to learn the language, and there is always a natural curiosity to see much you really know, putting your skills to test in a real-life, rather than class-room type setting. But from a spiritual standpoint, using German allowed me to receive certain lessons from the Lord, as well as overcome some of these aforementioned spiritual fears that gripped me when I prepared to do campus evangelism.

 

Members of our Braunschweig mission team with Alex in the historic old city

I think I can some up these lessons in a few adjectives: Humility. When I’m speaking in English, I usually feel fairly eloquent, and able to express myself clearly and effectively. After all, a large part of my professional training in Seminary and my subsequent campus ministry experience has involved me learning to be able to clearly communicate and teach the truths of the Word of God, in prayer, preaching, and discipleship. But trying to accomplish spiritual tasks on even an admittedly much smaller scale in German proved to be an exercise in humble learning. I remember once in Braunschweig I had the chance to lead worship, and I performed two songs in German. These were two songs  which I knew already with the original English words, and for which I had to practice several hours just to be able to present a half-decent rendition. Another time before a worship service with the student ministry, I was backstage with the speaker, my friend, Alex, and everyone in the circle prayed for his upcoming message. So I joined them, in German, and about 2/3 of the way through my prayer, I ran smack into the language barrier. Being unable to conclude my thoughts in German, I had to rather embarrassingly switch back to English! But again, God used these experiences to show me humility, and also I believe to develop some other  spiritual qualities.

Students and mission team members from Braunschweig on a hike up in the beautiful Harz Mountains

Meditation. Often in ministry settings in America, I may launch into a prayer, an answer to a question, or even part of a message, and I don’t necessarily have to plan out, or meditate over everything I say in advance. It’s nice of course to be able to speak more extemporaneously, but at the same time we can lose something when we don’t give ourselves the time and space to meditate thoroughly over every Word that comes from the Mouth of God and that we wish to communicate to others. But often, as I spoke German, I had to premeditate the words and phrases I would use. So this afforded me the opportunity to be extra careful and intentional in the way that I spoke about God and my relationship to Him. Listening. I pride myself on trying to be a good listener in all settings, but especially as it pertains to ministry. But as I’ve already mentioned, we must often struggle against every form of distraction as we seek to listen intentionally, because to really hear what someone is saying, to be fully present in that conversation, and to absorb what God may be seeking to teach us, takes effort. But as I’ve already mentioned about hearing the German sermon and workshop discussion, so it was true also for individual conversations—listening in another language gave me no choice but to be fully, acutely attentive if I had any hope of being able to understand!! I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring someone, or only half-listening, and again God used those experiences to convict me that it should always be this way when we are listening to someone else privilege us with the story and details of their personal spiritual experiences. Finding people of peace. I had heard many missionaries talk before about the importance of finding a “person of peace”—not necessarily a believer, but someone who was at least open to the Gospel, and would serve as a friend, and a helpful guide into a new cultural setting. Well again and again during my time in Germany, the Lord blessed me to have encounters with such individuals, many of them students that I met during spiritual surveys. But I believe that my speaking German with them actually helped somewhat in that discernment process. My method of finding a potential person of peace was to go up and explain to them in German that I was a visitor to the campus who would like to ask them a few questions about student life at the university. The students would know immediately from my accent that I wasn’t German, or a native speaker of their language. And some probably could guess pretty quickly that I was an American. But if they were patient enough to nonetheless to talk with me for a few minutes, tolerating my bad grammar, and even helping me as needed find the right word to use in German, then I would say I found a person of peace. Often they weren’t necessarily believers, but if nothing else, they had been willing to show hospitality to a stranger, and literally in every conversation that progressed far enough for me to ask about a spiritual background, not one student took offense, or refused to answer. Indeed, having heard so much about Germany being a “cold culture” and how religious belief is seen as an essentially private subject, I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which these students who I had just met were willing to share about their spiritual backgrounds, and receive some information about Connexxion. Now of course there were students who didn’t wish to speak with us, just as there would have been back in Boulder (and honestly percentage wise, about the same), but by trying to speak German, it seemed I was able to maybe identify even earlier on those individuals who were a little more open.

 

Worshipping in German in Braunschweig!

So how did the actual talks and spiritual surveys go?? Well it varied of course. We often found students who had some exposure to the church either through a baptism, a confirmation, or having attended on major religious holidays with their family members. As I alluded to earlier in my post, the problem, at least in part seems to be that not enough is happening in the churches to  make them want to stick around later in life. A problem, which of course is also very much a reality here in America. Hence my extended discussion about the importance of discipleship earlier in this post. I also heard many students that were hesitant to claim belief in a personal God, or the God of Scripture. And yet at the same time, very few were outright atheists. None of them seemed hostile either to the idea at least of what Connexxion was trying to do—build community among university students and at least give them the opportunity to hear and respond to the claims of the Gospel. Certainly it would seem that many of the German students we spoke with would like to find more community, as their college experiences seemed mostly comprised of working and studying, without nearly the level of extracurricular activity and involvement that is more typical in America. Also, just as an aside—I heard virtually nothing negative directed towards me personally as an American. Some of the students I talked to had traveled before in the U.S or expressed a desire to visit. Sure, some of them asked me about Trump and the current political situation, and I tried to answer as diplomatically as possible. But on the other hand they were perfectly willing to discuss equally sensitive questions in Germany, such as the future of the refugee situation, or their feelings about the EU and Brexit. The students we spoke too on the whole were remarkably well informed about events in America and the rest of the world, and seemed genuinely pleased we were visiting their country.

Now just as a closing note. I in no way want to come across as prideful about my language abilities. First of all they aren’t nearly good enough yet to warrant that!! And I also know that many Americans don’t have the opportunity to learn or practice foreign languages nearly as easily as most Europeans do. Spiritual preparation through Biblical study, prayer, and engaging in witnessing to others here in America is by far the most important way we can equip ourselves for the mission field. But I just wanted to mention the language aspect so that I could encourage anyone who is thinking of using their language skills, however meager they may be, in the field. If my experience in Germany is any indication, the locals you meet will be extremely appreciative of even a small effort on your part, and as I was, you may be pleasantly surprised how God can use language to open some doors, and teach you some spiritual lessons during your missions experience.

 

Getting ready to do some spiritual surveys on an excursion to the University of Bonn during the Connexxion Conference

Well it’s now time to close this lengthy blog post! In summary, I would say that there was nothing that I learned during this mission trip that I could not have learned while in my regular ministry setting in Boulder. However, I do feel like this was somewhat similar to an “accelerated course of study.” In other words, in just a few weeks I was able to absorb a variety of spiritual lessons, as I’ve attempted to communicate in this blog post. These may otherwise have taken me longer perhaps to learn in America. So I would encourage anyone who’s contemplating an overseas mission trip to go! God may be able to teach you faster and in a more unique way, some of the same lessons He wishes to impart to you here. And you might find too upon your return that you are that much more ready to engage in the mission field that your own hometown, university campus, or local workplace represents. What a privilege to partner with God in the ever-expanding work of His Kingdom, work which, we know from Revelation 7 will end in the beautiful picture of a Heavenly throne room filled with the representatives of the nations!!

             

 

Why I believe in the Resurrection

 

Recently, during the week leading up to Easter, our ministry engaged in a special evangelism focus around campus. One leading component of this outreach was hosting a book table where we gave away various Christian-related titles. One book in particular that we offered to many skeptics and seekers was the classic Josh McDowell apologetic text More than a carpenter. I personally gave copies of this book to two of my friends who are not Christians, in the hopes we can discuss it together. Reading through McDowell’s book in the last few weeks has made me ponder anew a question that I believe is perhaps among the most significant that any Christian can ask themselves. Did the Resurrection of Jesus Christ really happen?? Unlike some of the different posts I have added to this blog over the last several years, the question of the Resurrection’s occurrence is not simply a theological detail. Whether or not it literally occurred as a historical event is a question that should be of central importance to all Christians, and anyone who is investigating the truth of the Christian faith. Because, simply put, the entire validity of the life and claims of Jesus Christ, and hence Christianity itself, stand and fall on the question of whether the Resurrection actually took place. Paul states as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14-17—“If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” The Resurrection is not only of paramount importance from a theological standpoint as the centerpiece of the Christian faith, but its acceptance often constitutes a stumbling block for many would-be believers. There have been very many men and women throughout history who were comfortable regarding Jesus as a good moral teacher, an enlightened man whose teachings offer many positive lessons for how we can better live among our fellow humans. And such individuals may even be willing to accept that Jesus could have somehow been able to have a calming, even a healing effect on people who were sick and diseased. They can identify with His preferential love for the marginalized in His society, and can recognize Him as a positive force for spiritual renewal and progress in the Jewish tradition. But many would still stop short of believing that this same Jesus, great teacher though He was, could actually have pulled off the greatest miracle of all—cheating death itself and rising again to life following a brutal and bloody death on the cross. The Bible itself recounts similar reactions from those who heard the story. In Acts 17, when Paul preaches in Athens at the Mars Hill, he is given an attentive audience by the various philosophers and intellectuals who populated that great city of the ancient world. And yet we are told in Acts 17:32—“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘we will hear you again on this matter.”

 

For myself, as a minister of the Gospel, and someone who is regularly engaged in trying to share the Good News with non-believers, this question of the Resurrection’s historical validity is a very personal one. And while there are a number of different ways that I could go about addressing it, I’m going to use a theological methodology that is among my favorite ways of analyzing the faith norms and traditions of the Christian life—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is something I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, and the basic idea, borrowed from the work of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, is that there are four main sources from which we can draw theological conclusions, and which govern our Christian belief and practice: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. As a Baptist, and someone who has been profoundly shaped by the theological legacy of the Protestant Reformation, I would agree with Wesley that Scripture is paramount as the ultimate source of authority in my spiritual life. But these other three categories—reason, tradition, and experience, can also be of value in helping us to interpret and apply the truths of Scripture into our lives. With this in mind, I’d like to use these four paradigms from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to investigate the Resurrection, and to make my personal case for why I believe it to be true, not just in my heart, and as a spiritual occurrence, although that is certainly important, but also as a historical event.

 

 

So first, what is the evidence of the Resurrection from Scripture itself?? Now some people might immediately ask, why even bother citing Scriptural evidence for the Resurrection?? After all, wouldn’t we expect the Bible to support this event, and weren’t the very people who were most responsible for spreading the teaching about Christ’s triumph over death (the apostles and Paul) the ones who wrote these accounts? In other words, aren’t they all biased witnesses?? Well, from the standpoint of a skeptic, yes. But seeing as the Bible is the main source of written information we have for even basing a claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we should at least consider the nature of the arguments there. First, it is important to establish that the Resurrection is not simply referenced in one particular verse or passage. There are many, many different Scriptural references to Jesus rising from the dead, too many, in fact, for me to recount in detail here. Biblical critics often refer to Scripture “contradicting” itself or to significant “textual variants” that might somehow cast doubt on the reliability of the Bible. But the Resurrection is one of those events in the life of Jesus that is clearly attested to by all four Gospel writers. Also of great significance is the fact that the story of the Resurrection doesn’t begin with Jesus coming back from death. For in fact, long before this occurs Christ repeatedly predicts that He will one day triumph over the grave. In Matthew 20:18-19, Jesus proclaims: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” Virtually identical predictions are made by Christ in Mark 10:33-34, and Luke 18:31-33. Then in John 11, we find the account of what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This miraculous event of course foreshadows Christ’s own rise, and proves that He has power over death itself as Jesus tells Martha just before her brother Lazarus is raised—“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Another interesting detail related to the Resurrection, as recounted in all four Gospels, is that the first people to discover the empty tomb and the reality of the risen Christ are a group of women who had arrived there early on a Sunday morning for the purpose of finishing the embalming of the body. What is significant about this detail, as many Christian apologists have noted over the years, is that in the ancient world, women would not have been considered reliable sources. Their word certainly would not have been held as valid testimony in any official record, or court of law, given their relatively low standing in society. But this fact actually adds credibility to the Gospel account. Because if the writers had really wanted to fabricate evidence surrounding the events of the Resurrection, there would have been no reason for them to include this particular detail since it would have actually weakened the validity of Christ’s claim for their audience.

 

There are a few other passages in Scripture which shed further light on the fact and nature of the Resurrection, but these relate to how Jesus’ rising from the dead was actually a reasonable occurrence, which brings us to the next point of the quadrilateral. Now on the surface, it might seem absurd to call the Resurrection “reasonable.” After all, such an event surely is something that is mostly appreciated through the lens of faith, and something that happened counter to all logical information about our usual expectations for someone dying, and remaining dead. In other words, far from prompting any sort of belief, the account of something so fantastical as the Resurrection should invite our natural distrust and skepticism. But in its own unique way, Scripture seems to both expect and even invite our skepticism when it comes to the question of the Resurrection’s validity. There are several examples of this. For instance, some critics might allege that the Resurrection of Jesus was but a ghostly vision, or hallucination that was experienced by followers of Jesus who were in denial about his death, and wished so badly to see Him again that they had imagined experiences brought on by their pain and trauma. But the Bible responds to such an objection in a couple of different ways. First, it makes it clear that Jesus didn’t just appear to a few women, or even to the Apostles in isolated circumstances. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:5, that not only did Christ appear repeatedly to different groups of people, but that “He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.” Note in the last part of this verse the special emphasis on the fact that many of these witnesses are still alive at the time Paul is writing. So he is effectively inviting the skeptic to go find one of these people and ask them about what they saw. It would certainly seem plausible that it less likely for a crowd of 500 people all to experience the same hallucination.

 

 

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But Scripture also speaks to the individual skepticism and doubt that some of Jesus’ closer followers, His 12 Apostles, experienced upon first encountering the risen Christ. In Luke 24:36-43, Jesus appears to His disciples, and His actions demonstrate that He is well-aware of their potential skepticism. “Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” So Luke’s Gospel makes it very clear that the risen Christ was a corporeal presence, and not merely a spirit or vision. This point is further driven home in John 20. Here we have the story of the most famous of all Resurrection skeptics—the Apostle Thomas, “doubting Thomas” as he has come to be known through the ages. John 20:24-29—“ Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing. And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Again, isn’t it fascinating how the Scriptures seem to allow for our skepticism towards the Resurrection, and provide proofs to that end? Jesus could have easily upbraided Thomas for his disbelief, and yet He almost seems to expect it, allowing for Thomas to satisfy his doubt with tangible evidence, and yet at the same time praising the characteristics of faith which would allow countless followers of Jesus from that time on to believe in His Resurrection despite not having witnessed it personally. The Book of Acts, which is really the story of how the Christian faith and the early church grows after Jesus, begins with a statement that also seems designed to quell some of the natural doubt which might exist concerning the Resurrection’s validity. Acts 1:1-3—“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” The phrase “infallible proofs” would seem to suggest that rather than simply accepting the Resurrection as an article of faith, Luke, the author of Acts, is anxious that his readers know that this was a reasonable event, supported by logical evidence.

 

 

Image result for tissot the exhortation to the apostles

Whether one accepts the truth of the Resurrection or not, it would certainly seem fairly clear to conclude that the belief in Christ’s rise had an immediate and galvanizing effect on His followers. The first sermon recorded in Scripture after the time of Jesus was given by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2. Here, speaking to a crowd of both Jews and Gentiles, Peter attests to the reality of the Risen Jesus, even quoting from Psalm 16 as a foreshadowing of Christ’s defeat of death, a message which leads to many in the audience seeking to be baptized as Christ followers. What else could have logically transformed Peter and his fellow disciples, who just a short time before had been meeting in secret and hiding for fear from the Jewish and Roman authorities, short of the knowledge that their leader and teacher, Jesus, was not just another dead martyr, but lived again?? British theologian Michael Green says that confidence in the Resurrection “was the belief that turned heartbroken followers of a crucified rabbi into the courageous witnesses and martyrs of the early church. This was the one belief that separated the followers of Jesus from the Jews and turned them into the community of the resurrection. You could imprison them, flog them, kill them, but you could not make them deny their conviction that “on the third day He rose again”

 

But of course many critics can allege that either these early followers of Jesus were simply deluded as to the truth of the Resurrection, or that they knowingly concocted a false story in order to keep the religion going. C.S. Lewis has famously proposed in Mere Christianity that we have three options, his “trilemma” in regards to how we view Jesus—a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. I would argue by way of extension that these are similarly the choices we have for how to view the Resurrection, and the claims to it as given by eyewitnesses such as the Apostles. It could that the Apostles were lunatics, or to put a bit less strongly, at the least traumatized individuals who imagined they saw a risen Jesus. We have already dealt with the arguments against the contention that Jesus reappeared merely as a ghost or spirit. Furthermore, it’s a bit difficult to imagine these same disciples to be mentally unhinged, who were so instrumental in the spread of the Christian church, and in further propagating the teachings of Jesus which have had such a profound impact on Western society and the world as a whole. As Paul Little writes in Know why you believe—“Are these men, who helped transform the moral structure of society, consummate liars, or deluded madmen? These alternatives are harder to believe than the fact of the Resurrection, and there is no shred of evidence to support them.” Little’s quote also addresses the second possibility, that the Apostles knew perfectly well that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and yet decided to perpetuate this hoax for whatever reasons, and then managed to successfully spread it to posterity. But what would their reasons and motivations be for doing so?? Of course one could say that they had a vested interest in trying to continue the work and ministry of a man they had devoted their lives to following, and what better way to seal the credibility and authority of Jesus’ teaching by claiming that even death itself could not conquer Him?? But such a theory is severely tested when we take into account the eventual fate of these men. Eleven of the twelve Apostles would eventually meet a martyr’s death, as would Paul—their painful deaths directly connected to their insistence that Jesus had risen from the dead, and should be followed and worshipped as God.

 

Thus the question is raised—who would be willing to die for a lie?? As Josh McDowell perceptively points out in his wonderfully concise apologetic text, More than a Carpenter, many people in history have died for things that turned out to be false, but we would be hard-pressed to find many people in their right minds who have died for something they knew was a lie. And even if some of the Apostles, or possibly all of them as a group had been initially tempted to keep the legacy of Jesus alive by exaggerating a claim He had survived death, surely the temptation to give up the truth in exchange for their own personal safety would have been hard for them to resist. It would have only required one person to have betrayed the secret for the whole conspiracy, so to speak, to crumble. This was certainly the opinion of the eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who once wrote, “The allegation that the Apostles were imposters is quite absurd. Let us follow the charge to its logical conclusion: Let us picture those twelve men, meeting after the death of Jesus Christ, and entertaining into conspiracy to say that He has risen. That would have constituted an attack upon both the civil and the religious authorities. The heart of man is strangely given to fickleness and change; it is swayed by promises, tempted by material things. If any one of those men had yielded to temptations so alluring, or given way to the more compelling arguments of prison, torture, they would have all been lost.” But in response to Lewis’ trilemma, noted Biblical scholar and Christian skeptic Bart Ehrman has added a fourth potential option—legend. Perhaps the Apostles were sincere in their mistaken belief that Jesus had risen, and then over time, those men who wrote the books of the New Testament were influenced by stories of Jesus which gradually became more exaggerated over time to eventually incorporate such fantastic events as the Resurrection. Ehrman believes that Jesus could have been just an ordinary, moral teacher who was elevated to the status of a God by His later followers. And part of the strength of such an argument might lie in saying that the more time which passes between an individual’s death, and the records pertaining to their life and work, the more opportunity there could be for a possible distortion of details, and even the invention of information. But if we take the widely accepted date for the death of Christ to be around 33 AD, we find that the first Gospel, Mark could have been written as early as 65 AD, just about thirty years later. The last Gospel, John, was probably written around 90 AD. Thus we are talking about a period of only about 60 years between the death of Christ and the last of the firsthand accounts of His life. Especially by the standards of antiquity, that is not a long time-lapse. The Gospels were written within a timeframe that could easily have encompassed the lifespan of someone who knew Jesus and walked alongside Him. Therefore it makes it less likely that wild fabrications or outright legends would be concocted during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ time still would have been living.

 

 

The chart pictured above provides a nice response to people who would try and cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament, while refraining from similar critiques on other widely accepted works of antiquity. As you can see, both in terms of the number of extant manuscripts and the gap between the creation of the original and the oldest surviving copies, the New Testament has much stronger evidence for its textual integrity and existence than the works of Homer, Caesar, Aristotle, and many other famous figures from antiquity.

 

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So it is reasonable, I believe for us to have to entertain the possibility that the Resurrection of Jesus, as witnessed by the Apostles, really did occur as a historical event. Moving on to the next category in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, tradition, we needn’t give as detailed an inquiry. St. Vincent of Lerins was an early Christian bishop from France who lived in the 5th century AD. He came up with a famous maxim for determining what constituted widespread Christian belief, or orthodoxy—that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” This so-called Vincentian Canon could surely contain no more instrumental truth than a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. The vast majority of Christians, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, across numerous different denominations, cultures, and periods of history have held this truth in common. So as much as both critics, and those within Christianity have focused on the differences in belief and practice amongst various branches of Christianity, the fact of the matter is that there is more that unites the vast majority of Christian than divides them, a belief in the Resurrection being paramount among such unifying factors. Every time a group  of Christians gather to worship on Sunday, they are paying tribute to the honoring of the day when Christ rose from the dead, and also to the rich legacy of Scriptural and then ecclesial tradition which has passed  down this truth as being both essential to, and inseparable from, Christian orthodoxy.

 

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Finally, what about the evidence for the Resurrection from experience?? Well here I must draw primarily from my own faith background, although I do wish to cite one Scripture at the outset. One of my favorite verses is John 21:25—“And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” I love this verse because it suggests that a large part of the story of Jesus is not simply the historical account of His life and ministry, although of course that is significant. But the story of Jesus has also been written on countless human hearts down through the ages of history, and is measured in the multitude of lives that have been changed by belief in Him, a belief which for so many has centered on the reality of the Resurrection. Such personal assurances of the Resurrection’s significance have long been celebrated in Christian hymns. One of my favorite examples, and a hymn that I grew up singing as a Southern Baptist is “I serve a risen Savior”. In the chorus the words go: “He lives, he lives/Christ Jesus lives today!/He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way/He lives, he lives, salvation to impart!/You ask me how I know he lives?/He lives within my heart.” This hymn succinctly captures as well as any I know the importance of the Resurrection not just as an historical event, or an article of Christian doctrine, but as a living truth that is felt, and gives meaning and purpose to individual believers. The wonderful Bill Gaither hymn “Because He lives” celebrates in a similar manner the way in which belief in the Resurrection can offer daily hope and sustenance. As the chorus proclaims: “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow/Because he lives, all fear is gone/Because I know, He holds the future/And life is worth the living, just because he lives” New York City pastor and author Tim Keller is a noted current-day apologist for Christianity, and I was once watching a video of him discussing faith questions with a room full of Christian skeptics. One of them asked Keller–if they made a solid or convincing argument against some aspect of the Christian faith, would he be open to possibly changing his views or beliefs? Keller responded that while he might be very willing to concede the validity of an argument that could challenge or even change some aspect of his belief, this could only really occur on an intellectual level. For one another, more heartfelt level, his personal experience of Christianity was something so unique to his life, that by its very nature it couldn’t really be challenged with a logical argument. And I must say I agree with him. If I have felt the reality of Jesus as a living presence, the Resurrected Lord, in my life through a personal faith relationship, then no amount of scholarly or logical arguments against the validity of the Resurrection should be able to shake that aspect of my belief. In much the same way, we could compare the intensely personal nature of romantic love between two people. An outsider could look in upon a relationship and say that there was no rational or logical grounds for why these two persons should be attracted to and committed to one another, but their opinion ultimately has very little bearing on the situation, because the two people in question have found through their personal experience, which is completely unique to them, that they love one another. I wanted to talk about experience last, because I think that in many ways this is the trickiest of the four categories of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to negotiate. Certainly due to its high degree of subjectivity, personal experience should be measured through these other lenses of Scripture, reason and tradition. But we also should not be too quick to discount its validity either. In my experience in campus ministry so far, not so many skeptics that I’ve talked to who’ve later become Christians have cited intellectual, or logically-based arguments as the deciding factor. More often than not, they have mentioned emotional conversion experiences, or a gradual awakening to the reality of God and His love through the actions of others. That is to say, experiential factors often play a critical role in someone’s coming to faith in Jesus.

As I reflect back on why I believe in the Resurrection, I think it all can be summed up in one word for me—hope. I believe in a God of hope, and that hope is symbolized most powerfully by the fact that even the bleakest and seemingly most insurmountable of enemies, death, could not thwart the redemptive plans of God for all humanity in Christ. The Resurrection for me is Jesus’ twin triumph over death and the power of sin. And what is most amazing about this last miracle of Christ, is that its implications extend to all who believe in Him. As Jesus says in John 5:28—“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth–those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation”. As I conclude this blog post, it is my hope of course that someone may have the chance to read it, and learn more about how they can be confident in believing in Jesus’ Resurrection as an actual historical event, supported by evidence drawn from Scripture and church tradition, as well as their own reason and experience. But an even greater hope, and prayer would be that someone will see my life—the choices I make, the way I treat others, and the witness that I share, and see in it a reflection of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ. The hope that the Risen Christ has brought me, and continues to bring, has been shared by billions of men and women through history, and I refuse to believe that such a powerful current of love, faith, and life-changing confidence can be based on falsehood. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed…and He Lives!

Withstanding the Tempter

 

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We are now in the season of Lent–the 40 day period prior to Easter. Lent directly commemorates the time which Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, a season of disciplined spiritual preparation for His public ministry, which culminated in Him facing the Devil’s temptations. We will examine this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness from Luke 4:1-13 in more detail in just a minute. But first, I want to think about what it means to go through a period of intense preparation and discipline in pursuit of a greater overall goal.

 

 

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No doubt, most of us have faced such times of preparation in our lives. If any of you have played sports you might have had to go through a training camp of some sort. I played high school football and we suffered through what were known as “two-a-days”. Every morning and every afternoon we trudged out into the hot Alabama sun—in early August, to practice and prepare for the upcoming football season. It was tough no doubt,—but what I experienced was an absolute picnic in comparison to the training camp held by coach Paul Bear Bryant for his Texas A&M football squad in 1954. This was Bryant’s first year in College Station, and he wanted to set the tone for the kind of rough-and-tumble football he expected his players to deliver. So he decided to take the players out to a forsaken little town in west-central Texas called Junction. And there Bryant put his team through ten days of sheer torture. They practiced on a hard, rocky field in outdoor temperatures that surpassed 110 degrees. No water was allowed. Scores of players were injured or suffered heat stroke. Bryant ignored their complaints and told them to keep practicing. As the days past many simply quit. As one of the players, Gene Stallings, memorably phrased it, “We went out there in two buses, and came back in one.” But Bryant’s harsh methods of discipline and preparation eventually did pay off. By his third year at Texas A&M, in 1956, the Aggies were conference champions. And of course he went on to win 14 SEC titles and six national titles during his lengthy tenure as head coach at the University of Alabama from 1958-1982. While the players changed over the years, and even the styles and strategies of offense and defense, Bryant’s hard-nosed approach to disciplined preparation for each football season never wavered throughout his career. The athletics world is just one example then of an arena in which people are willing to subject themselves to discipline in the hopes of being able to gain a reward. Paul discusses this fact in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, contrasting the fleeting glory that can be won in sports to the eternal spiritual rewards that Christ followers can receive. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do  it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.”

 

Well as we study Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we see Him denying Himself, engaging in prayer and fasting, and then tangling with the wiles of the devil–a spiritual conflict with the highest possible stakes. We start to understand how crucial this period is in terms of preparation for everything that will come after. Jesus will face many obstacles and challenges in His ministerial career, and here in the bleak surroundings of the desert, He forges the spiritual discipline and an utter reliance on God which will enable Him to successfully be a perfect witness for the Kingdom of God, and ultimately, the Savior for all humanity. So as we commemorate this time of Lent, we recognize that it is a period for spiritual reflection, and repentance, in preparation for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection which will soon come. So during Lent we try to focus on what’s important—what’s truly central in our spiritual lives. So often, we fall into temptation precisely because we don’t have our priorities straight—and we start to seek after things which can never truly satisfy or fulfill us. They are false hopes, and false idols. And in this passage from Luke, Satan tries to lure Christ into turning away from His difficult and demanding mission, to chase after some of these false lures. Jesus stays strong in the Spirit however, even when He is at a low point of physical weakness. He remains rooted in the anchoring truth of Scripture.

So as we study these verses, I think it’s important not to view Christ’s temptations as some sort of remote cosmic struggle, but indeed as a direct parallel to the spiritual challenges that we as Christians must face every day. Because even though it might not be fashionable to say it in some churches now—Luke 4 teaches us that Satan is indeed real. His power is considerable and he is the temporary prince of this world. And he is strongest in fact, when we completely discount him. Satan likes nothing better than for people to say, “the Devil—he’s just a fairy tale—he’s not real.” What a lie!—for this world is plagued by evil and by sin—it is a fallen place. And the sobering truth is that we all have shared personally in some of that sin. So let’s turn to God’s Word, and the story of Christ’s temptation from Luke’s Gospel to discover how we can better resist evil, and better imitate the actions of our Lord.

Luke 4:1-13–“Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.”And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. 10 For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you,’ 11 and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ 12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ 13 Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.”

 

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As we mentioned earlier, Jesus is at a physical low point when He comes face to face with the tempter. He has fasted for 40 days. He is weak, sunburned, and blistered by the desert heat and wind. He is lonely and no doubt longing to return to familiar surroundings, to friends and family. And yet He has been guided here, after His baptism, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He is listening to God’s voice, and following it with perfect obedience as He always does. And this, not surprisingly, is the point at which Satan chooses to attack Him. The Devil doesn’t often bother going after us when we’re living sinfully, when we’re in effect, living his way. But when we try to live right, when we seek after God and His righteousness, then we can expect temptation and trouble to follow after us. Yet we find here that Jesus, in a moment of supposed weakness, is actually stronger than ever. Note the mockery in Satan’s tone as he speaks to Jesus in verse 3If  You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If…this word reminds me of how the crowd will address Jesus during His crucifixion. Matthew 27: 40-3If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him” The questioning word “if”, embodies the  voice of the tempting skeptic, and the cynic. In both cases though, Jesus will not be diverted from His mission. What exactly is the nature of this first temptation? Satan knows Jesus is hungry, and he simply tells him to turn the stones into bread. Simple enough, right? But this is a temptation to prioritize physical needs above spiritual ones. It’s perfectly natural for Jesus to be famished by this point, and desire food. But Satan wants to pervert that good and natural desire and turn it into something else, which is how the Devil always  works. So he tempts Jesus to seek the right thing—but by the wrong way: to misuse His Divine authority to perform a miracle for solely personal gain. We see a lot of examples even today of people seeking good results, through less than good methods.  Lance Armstrong was once one of the most inspiring stories in sports history. A man who had been virtually handed a death sentence from cancer in 1996, he recovered to win cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. In 1997 he also started the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for cancer treatment and research to date. Competing at the highest level in athletics, beating a deadly disease, doing extensive charitable work, and inspiring so many people—these were all wonderful aims that Lance Armstrong pursued. The problem lay in the way he accomplished these goals. For after years of rumors, in January 2013, Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, confirmed our worst fears. He had been cheating all along—taking steroids, blood doping, using a host of banned substances to achieve better performance. He got the right results….but he sacrificed all of his ideals and values to get them. Now Jesus—with all of the miracles that He performs, all of his wondrous deeds—never does anything for His own personal gain or benefit. The miracles are always for the glory of God, and as signs for those who would follow after. As John 20:30-1 says “Truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples …these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” No miracles for personal gain—and so Jesus rebukes Satan—turning to Scripture to quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. 

 

 

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The Devil is nothing if not resilient however, and so he tries to spring another trap for the Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus to seek worldly power in verses 5-6. Seeking after worldly power, is in fact the desire in fact of many who surround Christ. When they discover the following that this charismatic preacher has, and even better when they hear of His miraculous deeds, the first thought in many a mind is—if we can only harness this power for political ends. Many Jews want Jesus to overthrow the hated Roman rule—to be an earthly king, a general, a man of power. But these are aims that reek of ambition, and of pride—which is of course the root of all sin. And ambition, earthly power, pride—these are all in Satan’s domain—they are his gifts to bestow. John 12:31 spells it out plainly—Satan is the ruler of this world. Not permanently of course—but for a temporary period. And so these kingdoms belong to him—as do other worldly things. This raises then the question—what part of the world is standing between you and God? The thing about world aims and ambitions is that they cannot satisfy us. The main reason they can’t is because they’re so temporary, so fleetingfor us who have been made in God’s image, created in fact, for the eternal.

 

 

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I’m reminded of a great quote at the end of the movie Patton, a film which tells the story of General George S. Patton, one of the great American military leaders of World War Two. Patton is a student of history, and as he thinks back over his many conquests and honors, another thought intrudes. He reflects on the ancient Roman Empire. And the movie ends with Patton repeating these lines… For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting. Well Patton’s own triumphs would indeed be fleeting, and short-lived. He died in a car accident in December 1945, not long after the end of World War Two. Glory is fleeting.

 

 

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Consider the epitaph on the tomb of Henry II. He was an English king during the Middle Ages who fought many wars during his long reign from 1154 to 1189, expanding the territories of the crown into Wales and France. But in death at least, his ambition was checked. His epitaph reads….”I was Henry the King. To me diverse realms were subject, I was duke and count of many provinces. Eight feet of ground is now enough for me, whom many kingdoms failed to satisfy. Who reads these lines, let him reflect, upon the narrowness of death. And in my case behold, the image of our mortal lot. This scanty tomb doth now suffice, For whom the Earth was not enough.” Jesus rejects Satan’s offer of worldly power and prestige, again by quoting from the Word of God. We are reminded that nothing the world can offer is worth what God can give us, and nothing worldly is worth endangering our souls for. As Jesus says in Matthew 16:26: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

 

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The Devil won’t give up easily though, and he tries one more tactic—look at verses 9-11. He tries to get Jesus to test God’s power and authority by throwing Himself down from a cliff. Once again there is that mocking, cynical tone…”If you are the Son of God…why then surely you can do this.” Satan is even more clever here though because after hearing Jesus use Scripture, he too decides to quote from the Bible, from the Psalms specifically. The Devil can quote Scripture, and he can twist it around to suit his own wicked purposes. He does this to further disguise himself, and to trick the unwary. He is, after all, the father of lies, as John 8:44 tells us. But so often we still fail to recognize Satan when he comes to tempt us. There’s a great old episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone—perhaps some of your remember this show from back in the days of black-and-white television. It always dealt with interesting and unusual topics. One episode, called “The Howling Man” featured an American traveler named David Ellington, who while on the road late one evening, stops to stay in a monastery somewhere in Europe. Deep in the night, he awakes to hear a man screaming, literally howling. He eventually finds the source of the noise, it is a bedraggled, yet highly cultured and intelligent man who is being kept prisoner there in the monastery. The man is very persuasive and he begs David to release him, assuring him that all of the other monks are insane, religious fanatics. One of the monks later tells David to stay away from the cell at all costs, because the man imprisoned there is in fact the Devil himself. But David doesn’t believe the monk and after waiting for the opportune moment, he goes to release the prisoner. Curiously he notices that the staff which bars the door is easily within reach of the prisoner himself. But the howling man insists that he cannot be freed unless David removes the staff. So he does, and the prisoner exits. And as the freed prisoner walks towards the castle door, his appearance changes with every step, until he has assumed horns and a tail, and then vanishes in a plume of smoke. After discovering what has happened, the monk then sadly tells David that an inability to recognize the Devil has always been Mankind’s great weakness. Satan is always capitalizing on our inability to recognize him. We become immersed in sin—without realizing that he is at work, and without realizing that he can only work where we allow him to. Jesus however sees through Satan’s attempts to appropriate the Word of God, and with a final citation from Deuteronomy 6:16 he banishes the Devil. But note verse 13….”Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” As we said, Satan is nothing if not persistent. This is why 1 Peter 5:8 warns us in frank terms…”Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”

So what do we ultimately learn from Christ’s encounters with the Devil? How is Jesus able to resist Satan on three successive occasions, even when He is weak from hunger and fatigue? He turns to Scripture. By staying rooted in the Word of God, Jesus is able to ensure that no trick or strategy of Satan can distract Him from His true mission. During this time of preparation in the wilderness Jesus triumphs in a way that demonstrates not only His Divine authority but His humanity. You see Christ faces temptations just like all of us do—and He demonstrates to us how they can be defeated. Remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13–“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” We can defeat evil, we can overcome. Remember Satan, like Jesus would be a “fisher of men.” So stay rooted in the Word, remain spiritually disciplined, and with the power of the Holy Spirit Satan can be defeated. As James 4:7 eloquently states, “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” Amen!!

Faith and Science–conflicting or complementary??

 

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With this latest post, I want to address a topic that has evidently been a big source of conversation, and at times even controversy for many of the students I work with at CU-Boulder, as well as students on another campuses around Colorado. And that is the relationship between Faith and Science. Now of course this is an extremely broad topic, and let me just say at the outset that I’m not going to attempt to present anything like an exhaustive coverage of this theme, or even a thorough overview of the different issues, debates, and positions. What I do hope to accomplish however is to address this central question—are faith and science inherently conflicting, or can they coexist peacefully, and even complement one another?? Related to this are questions such as—can I believe in God and still believe in evolution? Or believe in God and still believe in a Big Bang?? Or what about the age of the earth—is it “young” according to a literal reading of Genesis 1, or “old”, in accordance with the predominant scientific perspective?? Is the Bible itself meant to be a scientifically-aware text?? These are a few of the questions I want to try to address, and in the process I want to share what I feel are some important general points to keep in mind when we discuss the intersection of science and faith. Because regardless of where exactly you stand on these topics, the fact of the matter is that we live in a world where science, and scientific discoveries are given an enormous amount of credence and respect. But at the same time, as Christians, we hold Scripture and its teachings with the highest degree of reverence. So where is the balance or meeting point between these two positions, if there is one??

 

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The date was December 24, 1968—Christmas Eve. On this special evening, millions of Americans tuned in to witness a live broadcast from the crew of Apollo 8, which was orbiting the moon in preparation for an eventual lunar landing (Apollo 11). This television audience, the largest in history at the time, listened spellbound as astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman took turns reading from Genesis 1:1-10. Now to me this is a remarkable little moment in time from the Space Race. These three men were the epitome of modern, scientifically-educated individuals. They were part of a nationwide effort to utilize the most modern technology of the era in order to reach for goals of interplanetary exploration that the people of Biblical times could scarcely have ever dreamed possible. And yet at this moment when they were orbiting the moon, in a triumph of scientific progress and technological innovation, their thoughts turned back to a book written thousands of years earlier, and the timeless spiritual message it contained. So for me, this moment aboard Apollo 8 symbolizes a harmonization between faith and science—something that I believe is possible, as we will discuss further.

We will investigate some of these questions through a Scriptural lens, as we attempt to tackle a few of the controversies which seem to inevitably arise when the intersection of science and faith is discussed. Specifically, we’ll look a little more closely at the discussion over the age of the earth, and then at evolution. As we talk about learning to balance these two perspectives of science and faith together, it’s my hope that you may find that they can coexist in some harmony with one another. It’s my belief ultimately that science and faith really ask completely different sets of questions, and employ a different set of methods to answer them. Yet in the final analysis, as Christians we should always be defined as a people of faith, and people who are faithful to the teachings and dictates of Scripture. These faith-based principles guide our entire worldview, including our use of science. And so whatever useful knowledge and perspective we can find through science, it should never be prioritized to the point that our faith is marginalized or obscured. After all, as Hebrews 11:6 reminds us: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”

 

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Galileo Galilei

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But the first point I want to share is that science and religion do not necessarily have to conflict with one another. Now in our modern society, the media often pits these two like opposing heavyweight fighters, with the assumption that it’s an either-or proposition and that only one can be right. But in my opinion this is setting up a false dichotomy, and leading us to mistakenly believe that science’s aim perhaps is to undermine faith, and that scientifically-minded individuals could never also be people of faith, who hold significant religious convictions. Without belaboring the point I want to highlight just a few of the most illustrious scientific minds in history—Galileo Galilei, Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Carl Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, Alessandro Volta, Lord Kelvin, Max Planck, Werner von Braun, Louis Pasteur, Francis Collins…all of whom were Christians, and the list could go on and on. To briefly illustrate the dual perspective that has allowed some of these brilliant scientists down through the ages to maintain both their faith and their scientific outlook, let me just share a couple of quotations from two notable Christian scientists. Werner Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who won the 1932 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the field of quantum mechanics. He was once famously quoted as saying–“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you” Current-day scientist James Tour is an organic chemist known for his work in the field of nanotechnology. He is quoted as saying–“I build molecules for a living, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult that job is. I stand in awe of God because of what he has done through his creation. Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science, it will bring you closer to God.”

 

Clearly then, there have been some very illustrious scientists over the years who have found that their work needn’t prevent them from being persons of faith. In fact, many have discovered that their scientific investigations have actually brought them closer to God. And why not?? The very gifts of reason and intelligence which we use to pursue science and explore the natural world around us are granted by God. In Matthew 22:37, as part of the Great Commandment, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” So even the idea that we can love God with our minds, and honor Him through our intellectual achievements helps to endorse the thought that scientific inquiry and study needn’t bring us into inherent conflict with our faith. I also love the perspective we get in Psalm 8:3-4“When I consider Your heavens, and the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him” As you may know, many peoples of the ancient world were very keen observers of the stars, and often had considerable astronomical knowledge. And here, it seems as though the Psalmist is saying that by observing the night sky and studying the heavens, in other words through science, he has arrived at a greater appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of God. Now, changing tack just a little bit here, consider the rubric given to us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12—“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Paul is talking about the liberty we have as Christians, and the fact that we don’t have an intricate series of rules, or laws, or do’s-and-don’ts to govern our moral behavior. I think this perspective is helpful to carry into our discussion about Christians involved in science too. Because science, simply put, is a neutral field. It is neither inherently good nor bad, so it is a lawful thing for a Christian to pursue?? The question is—for what purpose are we pursuing scientific study—for the good of humanity, for profit, for our own glory, or for God’s?? Consider this too—if Christians were to all decide that science was someone a tainted field that could damage their faith, and thus they removed themselves from it, how could Christ-followers maintain an effective witness to the many people in scientific fields of work?? Furthermore, scientific work, neutral though it may be in principle, frequently leads people into areas where there is a need for moral discernment or judgment to be exercised. Cloning, the development of atomic weapons, and stem-cell research are just a few examples of such fields where scientific inquiry and potential moral dilemmas may collide. And so I think it’s clear that we need Christians working in these different scientific fields to help provide some of the ethical and moral perspectives that will guide and underscore the march of scientific progress.

 

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Well if we can accept for the sake of argument that science and faith needn’t inherently conflict with one another, let’s move on now to investigate further one specific area of controversy and discussion within this larger topic—that of Creation, and specifically the age of the earth. Both the way in which our universe was originally formed, and the age of earth itself are subjects which are often cited as examples of the potential conflict between faith and science. We can address both of these questions in closer detail by looking at the Biblical account of Creation, starting in Genesis 1. However, I would like to just point out a few significant things from the story. First, God creates the world out of nothing—or sometimes you will see this Latin term used: ex nihilo. Listen to Genesis 1:1-2—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void.” That God created the universe from nothing is an important fact that makes the Hebrew and thus the Christian conception of Creation very different from some other worldviews. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first I want to address the question of whether Christians can believe in the Big Bang?? The predominant theory accepted by most current-day scientists in regards to the origins of the universe is called the Big Bang. I won’t attempt to explain it in any great detail, but essentially the theory is that the universe was born out of a gigantic explosion of energy some 13.8 billion years ago, and starting from a small, hot, dense core, it has been continuously expanding since. And everything that is in the universe currently, starts, planets, galaxies—our own earth, resulted from this original cataclysmic event. Now most scientists will readily admit that there is much regarding the origin of the universe that remains shrouded in mystery. So the idea of the Big Bang is very much a theory. But the fact is that if you ask most atheists, or secular people about the origins of the universe, since they won’t accredit it to God, they will reference the Big Bang. But as Christians, can we accept that the universe was created in such a manner?? Well I believe that we can accept the Big Bang as Christians for this simple reason. No scientist will claim to truly know why this event happened. They can tell you about the process itself—the how, but not the why. To put it another way, scientists don’t really claim to know what actually caused or initiated this giant primordial explosion. So could God be behind it all—could He be the initiator and the first cause of the Big Bang?? I think it’s plausible at least—and there are other Christians that would agree.

 

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But there is another problem attendant with believing in the Big Bang—the relationship of that theory to the age of the earth. Because if you accept the Big Bang, you’re ascribing to the belief that the universe itself is some 13.8 billion years old, and that correspondingly the earth is around 4.54 billion years old. Some Christians will immediately object to this statement, because with a literal reading of the Genesis creation account, based on God making the world over the course of six 24-hour days, and then following through with the subsequent genealogies you arrive at a much younger age for the earth—around 6,000 years old. But much hinges on the interpretation of the Hebrew word for day, “yom.” Some people may assume that “day” in Hebrew always refers to a 24-hour period of time, but this isn’t the case. For one thing, the sun and the moon, by whose position in the sky we help to measure night and day, aren’t even created until the fourth day, which makes it at least plausible that the days referred to in Genesis 1 are not literally 24-hour periods of time as we know them now. Secondly, the word “yom” is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean something besides a literal 24-hour period of time. It can mean the time or season when an event is at hand. For example, Joel 2:11 speaks of the coming of the “Day of the Lord”—a time of future judgment. And day can also be used to mean simply an extended period of time of indefinite length. An example of this type of usage comes just after the creation story in Genesis 2:4—“This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” We should also note that there are passages in Scripture which plainly tell us that God’s time-frame is very different from our own. Psalm 90:4 says in regards to the Lord—“For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past.” Or listen to the perspective of 2 Peter 3:8—“Beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Even in current English usage, the word “day” has that same versatility. Expressions like “back in the day” or “in the modern day” convey something besides a 24-hour time-frame. So here’s what I would say in summary—you could be both a “young” or “old” earth advocate and still be Biblically faithful. But what is not Biblically faithful is to say that the earth, and indeed the universe simply came into being as the random outcome of blind natural forces.

 

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But as long as you believe God was the agent behind Creation, I think there’s a lot of potential leeway to believe different theories about the age and method of the earth’s Creation. And here’s why I say that—because the purpose of the Genesis Creation account ultimately is not to provide a scientifically-accurate, blow-by-blow account of how everything happened with a precise accompanying chronology. Genesis is primarily a theological account of the beginning of life on earth—not a biological one. Clearly Genesis 1 doesn’t try to describe every different type of plant, animal, or natural feature that God makes. But it is emphatic in its declaration that God alone is responsible for the existence of the entire universe and the natural world. And here is where it can be useful to compare the Genesis 1 account of Creation to some other cosmologies found in the ancient world. As we’ve already said, the Hebrews believed that God alone had fashioned the world ex nihilo, out of no preexisting matter, and had spoken everything into existence. Such was God’s power and majesty that His words alone sufficed to make things happen. Humanity too is formed essentially from nothing. Genesis 2:7—“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”. Have you ever made anything out of dust?? This is just another way of saying God basically made man out of thin air—which both says a lot and also leaves much to mystery. Now, let’s quickly compare the Biblical narrative to one other roughly contemporary creation account. In the ancient Babylonian Creation story known as the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk kills a primeval giantess named Tiamat, and out of her corpse, the earth is fashioned. Also, in the Babylonian pantheon, both the sun and moon were worshipped as major deities. Yet in the Biblical creation account the sun and moon aren’t even created at all until the fourth day, thus diminishing their importance as simply one more aspect of God’s creation. And this is a God who needs no helpers to fashion His universe, and who is so powerful and all-sufficient that He can rest after His work—it is complete and perfect. Also, throughout the Genesis story, God is already making moral pronouncements on His work, calling it good. This is in sharp contrast to the Babylonian story where no moral values are assigned to creation—it simply happens. But perhaps nowhere is the contrast greater than when it comes to how God fashions humanity. In the Babylonian Creation story, humans are made out of the blood of a slain primeval monster, Kingu. And they are created by the god Marduk for the purpose of basically becoming slaves, to do all the labor needed on the earth and allow the gods to rest. How different is the Genesis account! As we mentioned earlier, God makes man out of dust—essentially nothing. But even more important is what we find in Genesis 26—“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” According to the Bible then, humans are the crowning glory of God’s Creation, and endowed with something of the intelligence, power, love, and spirit that God Himself possesses.

 

 

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So this brings us to the discussion of another major scientific controversy—the theory of Evolution. Can Christians believe in evolution and can it be reconciled with the Genesis Creation account?? Now just as with the age of the earth, there are Christians on both sides of this question. So without trying at all to influence your own personal opinions here, let me just share a few observations. First of all, you’ve probably all seen those bumper ornaments around before—the fish with legs. And it’s sort of a direct dig against the Christian fish symbol, right?? Implicit with this symbol is the idea that believing in evolution automatically counters or even disproves Christian teaching about God being the author of creation. The ideas behind this theory date back to the 1859 publication called On the Origin of Species by the English scientist Charles Darwin. Many people who favor a largely materialistic or secular worldview like to claim Darwin as their champion—the symbol of free scientific inquiry as opposed to the supposedly sheltered and narrow Christian worldview. But the facts are that Darwin himself never considered his works as making any kind of attack or statement against Christianity, or the potential belief in a Creator God. In a letter written in 1879, Darwin asserted his opinion that It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.” He then went on to write a description of his own religious beliefs which categorically denied his being an atheist: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” Now I fully realize that agnosticism is a far cry from being a practicing Christian, but at least this should demonstrate the falseness of the claim that Darwin was some sort of anti-Christian crusader, or that his works were meant to undermine or even destroy people’s faith in God. So, having said that, let’s return to the question of evolution itself. I don’t think it is inherently problematic to believe that animals evolved someone from a process of natural selection or that even humanity itself has been somehow shaped or influenced by these natural forces. Because the fact is—on both sides of this debate there remain many unexplained things. If you reject the idea of evolution, and take a very literal reading of Genesis, you still have to wonder exactly where all the sheer diversity of current human races, and different ethnicities came from, starting from just Adam and Eve. The Bible doesn’t really try to explain this. And if you are a secular believer in evolution, you and even the leading natural scientists are still puzzled to try and explain the sheer gap in cognitive ability and so many other factors between humans and their supposedly closest animal relatives—chimpanzees, and other members of the great ape family. Just as we said with the question of the earth’s age, the purpose of the Genesis account of humanity’s creation is not to provide scientific detail or a step-by-step account of how God made all men and women. The purpose of the story though is very much to assert that God made humans, and that He endowed us with certain Divine qualities, being made in His image, that clearly sets us apart from all other animals. Could this have happened through evolutionary processes?? Perhaps so, but it is God who is orchestrating and guiding these processes, and not blind, naturalistic forces.

So regarding both evolution and the age of the earth, my point would be that neither one of these questions or so-called controversies should ever be used as a litmus test to determine who is Christian, and who is not. Christians can believe in the Big Bang or not, they can endorse evolution or choose not to—and these ultimately are not questions of faith, nor are they the most important things that we need to be spending too much of our time and energy focusing on. The question to ask is—however one understands the processes by which the universe and the earth and humanity came into being—do they believe that God was ultimately behind all of it? I said earlier that when Scripture talks about God creating man out of the dust of the earth, this both says much, and also leaves a great deal to mystery. Because to say something is made out of dust doesn’t really tell you how it’s made, does it?? In the same way for God to speak the other various elements of creation into existence also doesn’t give us much in the way of detail about how precisely the sun, moon, and stars were made, or the plants and animals were formed. But on the other hand, we learn a great deal from this information. Because we learn that we serve and worship a God whose infinite power and wisdom allows Him to create things, ourselves included, by the sheer power of His will, leaving the exact process forever a mystery to ourselves, with our fragile and limited minds unable to grasp the full wonder of what He has done.

So as we conclude, I want to return to a statement I made earlier—my belief that science and faith needn’t conflict, but can actually coexist and even complement one another. The caveat is this—regardless of to what extent we endorse this or that scientific theory and find it can harmonize with our faith and our interpretation of Scripture, we need to always be ready to recognize the limitations of science. I said earlier tonight that one reason I believe science and faith can often co-exist is because they ask two different sets of questions, and use different methods to reach their conclusions. Along these lines then, we should recognize that there are certain questions in regards to the purpose of life, and the nature of love, beauty, goodness, mercy, forgiveness—that science can never address or answer. Such questions can only be approached through the lens that faith can provide us. And then correspondingly, a big part of being a person of faith is similarly recognizing limitations to our knowledge and wisdom. Proverbs, the great treatise on wisdom, tells us early on, in Proverbs 1:7—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”, and I think this is another way of saying that as God-fearing people, our pursuit of knowledge begins by admitting all that we do not and cannot know—that which belongs to God alone. The Book of Job is also included in the Biblical genre of wisdom literature, and at the conclusion of that book, in chapters 38-41, God breaks His silence to ask Job a series of questions that Job cannot begin to answer—all related to God’s sovereign control over the universe, and his complete mastery over all aspects of Creation. Job, for all of his desire earlier in the book to question God and demand answers from Him, is soon put in his place, realizing the gulf of knowledge between him and God, and humbly accepting that there is so much about God he will never fully grasp or understand. So science has its limitations, and we need to acknowledge that.

 

 

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Science also changes—and please don’t hear this as a criticism of science or a suggestion that as Christians we should avoid scientific study and inquiry. I’ve already said that I strongly feel like we need Christians involved in science. But science is certainly not infallible, and the scientific facts of today may well be questioned, challenged, or even supplanted centuries from now. For hundreds of years for example, the widespread consensus amongst medical experts held that bloodletting could be an acceptable treatment for all sorts of illnesses and maladies. In fact, the death of our first president, George Washington, in 1799, was hastened by the fact that his doctors, according to the wisdom of the day, repeatedly bled him during his final illness. Here is another example—you see above this paragraph a series of Time Magazine covers from the 1970’s that warn about an approaching new “Ice Age”, which scientists at the time believed was imminent. But as the more recent Time covers reveal, nowadays we are of course much more concerned that the world is getting warmer rather than colder. When I was growing up, we learned in school that there are nine planets in our Solar System—the furthest away from the sun being the planet Pluto. But a 2006 meeting of the International Astronomical Union the decision was made to downgrade its status to that of dwarf planet. We talked earlier about evolution. And you may have heard of a famous court case that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, where a high school teacher, John Scopes was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution to his students, which at that time was illegal in the state. His trial became a media circus and the basis later for the movie Inherit the Wind. Now many supporters of evolution will point to this trial as a landmark event in the struggle for the theory to gain wider acceptance in academic institutions. But often forgotten in retrospect is the actual content of the textbook that Scopes had used, called Civic Biology. For while it contained teaching about evolution, it also advocated for eugenics—that is selective breeding of humans in an attempt to weed out genetic disorders, a policy that would be put into chilling practice under the regime of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, and has today been totally discredited. Again, I mention these examples not to discredit science, but simply as a reminder that scientific knowledge is not something that is fixed and unquestionable—it is always in flux and changing.

 

Thus we need to recognize science’s limitations, especially when it comes to the faith realm. While we’ve looked at many different nuances of this topic, I could think of no better way to close than quoting from Ecclesiastes 12:12-14—“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” The debate over different aspects of science and their possible conflict with faith can be a never-ending one, so for me the bottom line is this: Do you acknowledge God’s supremacy over everything that is present throughout our universe? Do you recognize Him as the ultimate Creator, sustainer, and guide of life?? If so, then no matter what else you agree or disagree upon from the scientific realm, nothing should be able to shake these faith convictions which remain at our core. If we keep God at the center of the Created Order, then I believe scientific study will only go towards further highlighting His beauty, wisdom, and majesty. 

Reflections on “Silence”

 

            In general, I don’t use this ministry blog to comment much on pop culture items, even though dissecting trends and themes within popular music, movies, and television shows is stock-in-trade for many bloggers and writers on the internet. I feel there are plenty of other people out there who can talk about pop culture probably better than I could, and so often I guess I just don’t see the relevance of such discussions to my work in ministry. It’s interesting to engage with whatever is the latest hot cultural item, yet as most of us are aware, pop culture trends come and go with alarming rapidity, especially in the internet and social media age. What is trendy and current now might very much be “old hat” in a manner of just a few months. And even the best trend-watchers and media experts cannot really predict what will stick around and what will fade. For example, I’m sure there were many media pundits in the mid-60’s who assumed The Beatles were purely a teenage phenomenon, and would never have the lasting impact on Western society, let alone popular culture that they’ve had. So in general, I try to steer away from such cultural explorations, and focus more on foundational aspects of ministry and the Christian life that have stood the test of time.

All of that to say that this blog post is going to be about popular culture haha. Specially I want to share some personal reflections of mine after having recently seen the new Martin Scorsese film, “Silence.” Occasionally you are so touched by a film that it continues to play in your head for days and weeks afterwards, leaving indelible images, and perhaps more significantly questions and new perspectives on life. Certainly “Silence” proved to be such a movie for me. It’s already generated some share of controversy in the Christian community, but for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, I’ll go ahead and urge you to do so. You might not like everything in the film, and certainly it is a difficult movie in parts to watch, but I believe that any thinking Christian will benefit from having to wrestle with some of the spiritual themes that emerge from Scorsese’s nearly 3-hour long historical drama. This post isn’t necessarily meant to be a straightforward movie review, but more just a series of reflections that I’ve been carrying around with me since seeing the film several weeks back. However a warning—this post will contain some significant plot spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, perhaps watch it first!

 

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First—a little background information though. “Silence”, released in late 2016, is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. Endo was a practicing Catholic, and this is his most famous work, widely acclaimed by many as one of the outstanding novels of the 20th century. It is based on historical events surrounding the attempt by Portuguese Jesuit priests to evangelize Japan in the 17th century amidst severe state-led persecution. Director Martin Scorsese had been seeking to adapt “Silence” into a film from as far back as 1990, and described the project in strong terms as “an obsession…it has to be done.” Although he has always identified as a Roman Catholic and while some of his films have explored religious themes, Scorsese’s work has been equally marked by featuring high levels of profanity and violence. He has made films that have both been widely celebrated, such as the award winning Raging Bull (1980) and have courted considerable controversy, such as 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But from the start of the movie, it is clear that Scorsese takes his subject matter seriously with “Silence.” As further proof of this, he arranged for the world premiere of the film to take place at the Vatican, where a special screening was arranged for Pope Francis and members of the Jesuit Order.

 

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It’s also apparent that the main actor in the movie, Andrew Garfield, took his role very seriously. Garfield, who is part Jewish, had previously described his religious background as “mostly confused”. Yet in several interviews given around the time of the film’s release he makes some statements which would seem to indicate that he was spiritually changed by making the movie. Garfield plays Portuguese priest Sebastião Rodrigues, whose story is at the center of the film. In order to prepare for the role, he spent a year with a Jesuit spiritual advisor, whom he still considers to be a close friend. He practiced Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, and even spent time on a spiritual retreat in Wales. Talking about his experiences in preparing for the film role, in an interview given to America, a Jesuit magazine, Garfield noted–What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.” Later, he added:  “It’s such a humbling thing because it shows me that you can devote a year of your life to spiritual transformation, sincerely longing and putting that longing into action, to creating relationship with Christ and with God, you can then lose 40 pounds of weight, sacrifice for your art, pray every day, live celibate for six months, make all these sacrifices in service of God, in service of what you believe God is calling you into.” In another interview with British paper The Guardian, Garfield reflected candidly on some of his disillusionment with the trappings of celebrity as a major movie star–“The poison in the water started a long time ago,” Garfield says, “with the birth of Hollywood and Edward Bernays, propaganda and PR. We’re all in the same position now, because we all have the ability to self-promote. People are rewarded with money and fame, and ultimately the correct amount of emptiness for an egocentric life. There’s part of me that will always want to shed all that.”

 

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Now—let’s get into the content of the film itself. As I mentioned earlier, “Silence” is a historical drama, based on actual events that occurred during attempts by Portuguese Jesuits to Christianize Japan in the 17th century. The faith had first been introduced to the islands starting in the mid-1550s with the work of the famous Jesuit priest St. Francis Xavier. After some initial successes, a strong native community of converts developed. However by the end of the 1500s, the official Japanese attitude towards Christianity had changed, and official persecutions began to take their toll. By the time of the movie’s setting in the mid-1600’s, Christianity is an officially outlawed religion. The movie opens with two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), and Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver) who are in Macau, a Portuguese-controlled city in China, and are seeking news of Cristóvão Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), another priest who had been their mentor in the faith, and has now been working as a missionary in Japan for many years. The Jesuit Order fears however that Ferreiera has committed apostasy, because they have not heard from him in some time, and they know that the persecutions taking place in Japan are increasingly severe. Nevertheless the two young priests boldly volunteer to be sent to Japan in order to find out what exactly has happened to Ferreira. Their supervising priest warns them sternly—“the moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger.” In a back-alley of Macau, the priests find Kichijiro, a Japanese fisherman who knows some Portuguese and agrees to be their guide as they take ship for Japan.

 

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Upon arriving in the islands, Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to find a fairly large underground church composed of native Christians, who continue to practice their faith secretly, despite the great risk posed by the state persecution. In a series of touching scenes, the two priests experience overwhelming love from these beleaguered believers, who have been desperately awaiting spiritual guidance. The priests perform baptisms, hear confessions, and administer communion. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, the native Christians insist the priests eat from their meager stockpile of food. When asked if they too will eat, one of the believers responds “you are our food.” But despite this warm reception at the hands of the native Christians, the two Jesuit priests recognize they are in grave danger as well. They must hide during the day to avoid detection, and can only come out at night to minister to the people. It is but a matter of time though before the authorities catch on their presence. Soon an official government detachment comes to the village where they have been working, in order to search for any suspected Christians. The villagers are told that a substantial cash reward will be offered to anyone who turns in a suspected believer. The detachment returns a few days later and this time calls out the names of several individuals who they accuse of being secret Christians.

 

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Then they produce a crudely made image of Christ, called a fumi-e. The test proposed is simple. If an individual in question is willing to tread on this image, they are set free. If they refuse, they are arrested for the illegal practice of the Christian faith. In scenes that will be repeated many times throughout the film, the reactions of the suspected believers vary. Some decide to tread on the image to spare their lives and maybe save the village from further trouble. Others cannot bring themselves to dishonor Christ, and thus by their refusal, they ensure their arrest and probable death at the hands of the state authorities. As for the government officials themselves, their tone is often strangely conciliatory. They simply desire to preserve law and order, they say, and they even downplay the significance of the fumi-e, saying that to tread on one is but a symbolic gesture that will appease everyone. But for those Christians who refuse to tread, a terrible fate awaits. As Rodrigues and Garupe watch from a hiding place in horror, several Japanese Christians, including a very elderly believer are placed on crosses in the shallows of the ocean, and left to slowly drown and starve as the tide advances. Their bodies are then cremated so that they cannot be given a Christian burial. Nonetheless even amidst this traumatic scene, the faith of the native Christians shines through. One of the dying men continues to sing praises to God for several days until his body finally gives out.

 

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In the aftermath of this wave of persecutions, the two priests make the difficult decision to leave the village, believing their continued presence there might cause more harm for the remaining believers. Rodrigues and Garupe then separate to try and reach further villages and assess the state of the believers there. We gradually find out more of the backstory too for Kichijiro, the fisherman who had guided the two priests to Japan from Macau. It turns out that he too is a Christian, but one who had recanted his faith in order to save his own life during an earlier period of suffering. During this persecution, the rest of his family were all martyred. As a result, he is wracked with guilt, and is continually wanting to confess to Rodrigues and ask God for forgiveness. At one point in the film he wonders aloud about what place there is in the Kingdom of God for a weak man such as he is. But while Rodrigues tries to comfort him, Kichijiro it seems cannot resign himself to be fully committed believer amidst the threat of persecution that continues to swirl over his head. In a haunting scene, the gaunt and thirsty Rodrigues, wearied by his long journey asks his native guide to find some water. At first the priest is relieved upon seeing the fresh stream, and then as he begins drinking, he becomes positively joyful, for there, for an instant, reflected in the water he sees an image of the face of Christ staring back at his own. A British movie review from The Guardian was rather critical of this moment in the movie—“there is something a little broad about the moments in which a priest sees visions of Christ in himself.” But for me it remains one of the defining moments of the film In Roman Catholic theology, the priest is considered to be acting in persona Christi. In other words, as he ministers to his congregants, he is standing in the place of Christ at that moment. And even as a Protestant, I think this is a valuable spiritual concept, especially if it is broadened in scope. After all, the term “Christian” itself means nothing more than “little Christ.” All of us then as believers have the opportunity to be Christ to someone else on a regular basis, mirroring the attitudes and actions that Jesus would take were He present. And of course given Jesus’ promise of a continual presence with us from Matthew 28:20, there is added reason for us to seek to always represent Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Rodrigues is rejuvenated by this sudden appearance of Christ’s face following a difficult period of doubt for him, but the vision is placed into the full and proper context with the next scene. For right after leading him to the water, Kichijiro is promptly surrounded by a group of imperial authorities, one of whom throws pieces of silver to him. It is clear then that he has betrayed Rodrigues, solidifying his reputation as somewhat of a Judas figure in the overall arc of the story. And yet, as the film unfolded further, I increasingly found myself identifying with this wretched man, because after each failure we see his despair, and heartfelt desire to repent. I believe that Scorsese is trying to show us that there are those who want to follow Jesus, but are simply too weak to remain resolute when savage persecutions become the litmus test for true faith. Perhaps given similar circumstances, many of us would react the same way. As for Rodrigues, perhaps he has discovered that the face of Christ appears to us most clearly in moments of need and of suffering. For after having witnessed Jesus in the pool of water, he is about to now enter into the very darkest of nights of the soul.

In stark opposition to Kichijiro’s weakness however, is Father Garupe. Rodrigues, after being arrested and taken to Nagasaki, is later brought out to a cliff overlooking a beach. In the distance he recognizes Garupe along with several other native believers. After refusing to recant, the whole group is drowned. Garupe perishes, exhausted in a last desperate act of Christian sacrifice, as he tries to hold one of the condemned women up in the water. This glorious martyr’s death is perhaps what Rodrigues has in mind for himself, disheartening though it is for him to witness his one other companion’s demise. But now the film zeroes in on the personal drama that is about to unfold within the very soul of this priest as he at last comes face to face with the authorities, and with the full consequences of his decisions regarding his faith.

 

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Rodrigues, while imprisoned in Nagasaki, witnesses several more instances where suspected native Christians are asked to tread on the fumi-e. Some do, but others refuse, and although the authorities don’t always react immediately, in one particularly dramatic instance, a believer who does not tread is promptly beheaded on the spot. This graphic execution underscores the intense moral dilemma that is now raging within Rodrigues. On the one hand, he intends to stand firm in his faith, wanting to offer a good example for those Japanese believers who are prepared to die before they will renounce Christ. But at the same time, it soon becomes apparent that the Japanese authorities are using Rodrigues as a pawn. They have no intention for the time being of killing him and thus allowing him to become a martyr, and they don’t even torture him. Instead, his punishment is to have to watch native Christians being interrogated before the fumi-e, as well as later being tortured by being hung upside-down in pits. Rodrigues also has periodic conversations with the head of the government interrogators, an old Japanese nobleman known as the “Inquisitor”. He regards Rodrigues with some disdain, seeing him as a proud man who is arrogantly determined to bring in a foreign religion to Japan. As he discusses the state persecution of Christians with Rodrigues he notes severely–“the price of your glory is their suffering”

 

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Still, Rodrigues remains resolute, until he faces his greatest test. He is brought to a Buddhist monastery, and there he at last comes face to face with Father Ferreira. His former mentor has now adopted a Japanese name, has married a Japanese woman, and is studying Buddhism. All of Rodrigues’ worst fears have been realized. At first he reacts with great anger, calling Ferreira a disgrace to the priesthood. Yet Ferreira, (played convincingly by the veteran actor Liam Neeson), responds calmly. He explains that after being tortured, and witnessing the suffering of so many native Christians, he committed apostasy. He states furthermore his conviction that Christianity is alien to the Japanese mind and culture, and will never be able to take long-term root in the country. Let down by the last man he hoped he could place trust in, and despairing of ever being able to leave the prison, Rodrigues is subjected to one more harrowing evening of listening to native believers being tortured as they are hung upside-down. Then, shockingly he is told that these are people who have already apostatized. But they continue to suffer because the authorities have realized that the single most demoralizing blow they could deal to the Christians would be for them to witness the apostasy of their leader, the priest. And so Rodrigues is told that he can end the suffering of these individuals only through his own renunciation of the faith. A fumi-e is brought out, and Rodrigues is told to step on it. Then in perhaps the single most dramatic moment of the film, Christ, whom he has been waiting to hear from for so long, finally speaks. Trample!” the voice of Jesus says. “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” So Rodrigues steps.

Then the movie fast forwards several years. We see Rodrigues now having ostensibly followed the same path of apostasy as Ferreiera. He has married a Japanese woman, taken a Japanese name, and is even shown in one scene working alongside his former mentor, helping the governmental authorities to sort through religious iconography captured from suspected Christians. There is also a heartbreaking reappearance by the disgraced former guide and betrayer Kichijiro, who now works as a servant for Rodrigues. At one point he begs him for forgiveness and absolution, but with an air of great sadness, Rodrigues refuses, saying simply that he is no longer a priest. The movie concludes with a few more poignant scenes. Kichijiro is caught with a Christian amulet, and despite his claims that he unknowingly won it from gambling, he is led away by the authorities, his final fate to be unknown to us. But perhaps this time, he will refuse to recant, after so many past failures of faith and nerve. The most touching scene is saved for the end though. We see Rodrigues in the moments following his death, dressed in Buddhist robes and being prepared for a traditional Buddhist funeral. To all visible evidence, this is a final proof of his failure as a priest, as a missionary and as a Christian. He is be buried in the faith of the very religion that he came to Japan to counter. Or is he?? For furtively, and almost unnoticed as she ritualistically mourns the death of her husband, his Japanese wife quietly slips a sheath of white paper into Rodrigues’ coffin. Scorsese masterfully keeps its contents a secret, until almost the very last frame of the film. And there, as Rodrigues body begins to be cremated, we see that within the sheath is contained a small crucifix, of the same kind which had been given to him by a native believer when he first came to Japan.

Having described the basic plot art of the film, I want to share now in a few reflections. I can remember that in the immediate aftermath of the movie’s conclusion, there was almost total quiet in the theater, rather than the usual chatter which begins as the credits roll. I left the theater trying to hold back tears, and with both a strange mingled sensation both of heaviness and exultation in my heart. What to make of this extraordinarily complex, and haunting piece of cinema?? I’m still wrestling with those questions several weeks later. I certainly understand why this is a controversial movie, and why some Christians may find it unpleasant and disturbing. That does not mean however that the movie is unbiblical. In fact, I would assert that it confronts us, as comfortable 21st century American Christians with some very hard Biblical truths—mostly in the form of the questions that it raises. Like a gifted filmmaker, Scorsese, I believe, is ultimately less interested in providing concrete answers to all these questions (a fact which alone will upset some moviegoers who like neat, tied-up endings) than he is in forcing us as the viewer to squirm in our seats as we contemplate the way we may have reacted in a similar situation. And yet “Silence” as a movie is not so open-ended that we are merely left in confusion. In fact, taken as a whole, it provides a narrative which for me confirms some of the essential, and unchanging facts about who Jesus is, and who we as His followers should be.

So I’ll now try to unpack some of these thoughts. Let’s think for a minute about four of the main characters—Rodrigues, Garupe, Ferreira, and Kichijiro. If Garupe’s martyr’s death represents a more straightforward expectation of the resolute faith of a missionary prepared to sacrifice his life for the Gospel, what do we make of the ragged inconsistency of Kichijiro’s testimony, and his continual recanting, even to the point of betraying his friend Rodrigues, followed by tearful pleas of repentance? Well, both are Biblical figures. Because for every Stephen that comes out of the pages of Scripture, dying steadfast in his commitment to Christ, there is a Judas, or perhaps more accurately a Peter. Because the leader of the Apostles, the man who first proclaims Jesus as the Christ, we must never forget, is also the same man who denies Jesus three times with a curse. Kichijiro’s continual weakness in the film then serves as a reflection of the spiritual inconsistency that we all struggle with. It is embodied by Paul’s impassioned words in Romans 7:19—For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice”. Jesus knows we are prone to such failings all too well—as He tells the sleeping disciples in the Garden in Matthew 26:41—Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

 

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Rodrigues and Ferreira are even more complex as characters though. It would be easy to simply dismiss them both as failed missionaries, as apostates, who cracked under the pressure of persecution and then renounced their beliefs in order to live a comfortable and assimilated life in Japan. While there is some truth to this, I don’t think such a simplistic view captures the whole story, especially in the case of Rodrigues. First of all, neither man gives in so easily. The very opening scene of the film actually shows Ferreira witnessing native Christians being tortured by having boiling water poured over their bodies, in a terrible, blasphemous mockery of baptism. We later see scenes where Ferreira himself is tortured in the same upside-down manner that Rodrigues later witnesses native Christians suffering at the Nagasaki prison. Ferreira reveals that he spent 15 years trying to convert the Japanese amidst all of these persecutions. Rodrigues of course goes through his own intense struggles as we witness throughout the film. At the outset of his landing in Japan, he is overwhelmed at the sheer challenge of trying to bring Christian comfort and leadership to the scared, scattered Japanese believers. Then he suffers untold agonies at having to watch these Japanese brothers and sisters in Christ tortured while he is powerless to help them. Finally there is the excruciating pain of coming face to face with Ferreira his former mentor in the faith, and the man whom he had come to Japan in order to find—only to discover that he is now apparently an apostate. Throughout all of this, I think that the filmmaker Scorsese wants to show us that committing apostasy is not a hasty act born out of a quick desire to avoid suffering, but something which can be brewing inside one for years, and is eventually brought out by a combination of circumstances. In the end, with both Ferreira and Rodrigues and their decision to recant, the tipping point actually seems to be less about them wanting to end their own suffering, and more about wishing to help end the sufferings of native believers.

 

This brings me to perhaps the most controversial part of the movie. When Christ seemingly speaks to Rodrigues, giving him permission to step on the fumi-e, is it really the voice of Jesus? Would Our Lord ever tell us that in effect, it’s ok to give in to persecution, at least on the surface?? I certainly cannot know for sure, nor do I think Scorsese completely wants us to know, that the voice Rodrigues hears is truly that of Jesus. But how could it be that Jesus might conceivably say such a thing?? I am reminded of one particular passage in Scripture found in Luke 22:21-34. It is just before Jesus is to face His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. And He turns to Peter, seemingly the leader and one of the most trustworthy and faithful of all the Disciples, with this shocking prediction—“Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” Peter then protests vehemently: “Lord I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.” But Jesus responds: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.” Of course Peter shortly thereafter fulfills Jesus’ prophecy, as fear leads Him to a threefold denial of the man he claimed he was ready to die for. Later however in John 21, we find Peter being forgiven and restored by Christ. So what does this have to do with the denial of Rodrigues, and the apparent voice of Jesus speaking to him during that final test of faith before the Japanese officials with their fumi-e?? Is Jesus saying that it is ok to have a failure of faith?? Well yes—in the simplest terms, but we need to unpack this idea a little further. Because Jesus saying that it is ok when we fail is very different than Him endorsing our failures or weaknesses. But just as Christ recognized that Peter would shortly fail Him, and yet not ultimately be lost to Him, and maybe He sees the same thing in the heart of Father Rodrigues.

One of the bedrocks of my theology as a Southern Baptist has been the concept of “once saved, always saved”, sometimes known in other theological terms as “perseverance of the saints.” There are many Scriptures we could cite in support of this idea that once someone places their faith in Christ, it is impossible for them to later lose their salvation. Two of my favorites are John 10:27-29—“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” and also Philippians 1:6—“being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” The most compelling reason though for me to endorse the idea that Christians can’t lose their salvation is tied back to another foundational part of my theology, the idea of salvation by grace through faith alone, as expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Thus if faith is something that can be lost, it seems like we are putting it into the category of a work, and also saying that salvation is not a certain thing, but rather depends on one’s current spiritual state. Ultimately, I don’t believe ultimately that Scorsese is trying to tell us that Father Rodrigues’ recanting leads to the damnation of his soul. After all, that poignant final scene of him holding a cross in his grave, one that was put there by his wife, suggests to me that Rodrigues remained a Christian, at least secretly, and that he more likely than not also raised up his Japanese family to be believers.

But putting aside for the moment questions of Rodrigues’ eternal destination, I know there are those who will still scoff at the idea that Jesus would ever give anyone permission to experience a lapse of faith, even it was merely in a symbolic fashion that Rodrigues treaded on the fumi-e, while keeping faith in his heart all along. Now certainly, we’ve seen historically how persecution can fuel growth in the church, from the earliest days of Roman Christians dying in the Coliseum, to even the 21st century, with the explosion of the underground church in China, and the continued growth of the church amidst severe persecution around the Middle East. Longtime Southern Baptist missionary Nik Ripken, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the persecuted church, and a man who spent much of his missionary career working amidst believers who faced grave and life-threatening consequences for making a profession of faith in Christ. He consistently writes and speaks of the value of persecution, even going so far as to question why we, in the West will pray for an end to it, when it has proved to be such a catalyst for church growth through the ages. And indeed at one point in the movie, Father Rodrigues even states “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” So once again—how could Jesus ever advocate anything other than a believer continuing to endure persecution, and be faithful to the end?? I cannot give a definitive answer, but only offer a few observations. First, it is clear from the experiences of Ferreira, and then Rodrigues, that neither man “cracks” under the pressure solely of their own persecution. They both endure great suffering, and in particular Rodrigues, from the start of the film, by volunteering to be sent to Japan, must know that he could well be faced with possible martyrdom. But I sense that the real pain both men experience is from having to witness the suffering of Japanese believers, and knowing furthermore that their refusal to recant will cause even more native Christians to suffer.

Does this justify apostasy? No—but it does help us to put their decision into a little bit more context. It is also at least a valid question to raise as to whether merely treading on an image changes what is in one’s heart? Now I realize of course that we are commanded to confess Christ not merely in the privacy of our own spirit, but in the public sphere, and certainly the public treading on the fumi-e by the very priests who the native Christians most revered would have had a devastating effect on the morale of the Japanese church—much as the authorities intended. So I’m not attempting to endorse the actions of these priests, but I’m also not prepared to say that they committed a permanent or unforgivable apostasy. I once shared in an earlier blogpost about why I keep a crucifix on my bedroom wall. For me it is a symbol of the burden, the suffering, the shame, the sin that Christ not only carried for me, but is still carrying for me. Jesus never endorses my sin, or gives me license to indulge my fallen nature. And yet He also stands ever ready to forgive me, no matter what I’ve done. So like Peter, and like Rodrigues, our failures of faith are seen and even understood by Christ as part of the reason for why He had to carry the heavy burden to Calvary. So if the voice of Jesus does indeed speak to Rodrigues to say “you may trample” it is perhaps the greatest demonstration of His overwhelming love and compassion for us, even in our miserable and wretched state of sinfulness. I refer back to an earlier comment I made about the Japanese convert Kichijiro, he who recants repeatedly, and ultimately betrays Rodrigues to the authorities, yet still wants to believe. He wonders what place there is for a weak man in God’s Kingdom. But Jesus came to the world to die precisely so that even the weak could find a place in the Kingdom of God. Thus I must conclude that even the very public failure of  Father Rodrigues to declare his faith in front of the authorities, is covered by the blessed truth that Our Lord reveals to Paul. For Paul too, lest we forget is a man of profound weakness. He admits as much in Romans 7:19, and I have to imagine he lives his entire missionary career with some of the guilt and shame that remain from his not only failing to profess Christ, but from his active role as an agent of persecution towards the church. And yet Jesus promises to him in 2 Corinthians 12:9—“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Scorsese’s film invites us to wrestle with, and ultimate accept that spiritual paradox, whatever it may mean for each of us individually.

 

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The movie’s title derives from the fact that for much of the film, Rodrigues complains of the fact that he seems unable to hear from Jesus. At one point, his heart brimming over with despair, he exclaims—“I pray, but I’m lost. Am I just praying to silence??” But as we have noted, Jesus breaks His silence at the moment Rodrigues finally is brought before the fumi-e. Similarly, the face of Christ appears to him just before his own betrayal and arrest at the hands of his Japanese guide and friend Kichijiro. I think that Scorsese is making a twofold statement here on the nature of how and when God chooses to speak to us. Certainly the Lord can communicate through the Holy Spirit and Scripture and a whole host of other mediums, and at different times and seasons in each individual life. But He also chooses to speak uniquely to us in times of suffering and ironically enough, in those periods of life in which we seemingly are unable to hear His voice—in the silence itself. God speaking through silence is in large part the theme of the Book of Job. Job doesn’t hear from God until the very end of the book, and even then, he never really gets his big “why” questions answered. And yet we sense that the message of Job is that we must learn to accept it when God doesn’t speak, and realize that does not indicate His absence. Or consider Esther. God’s name is never actually mentioned throughout the entire book, and yet clearly it is a story of His working “behind the scenes” and through His servants to foil a Persian plot of destruction against the Jews. Jesus’ life is certainly marked by those moments where God would appear to perhaps be silent—His time of temptation in the desert, His agony in the Garden, and most notably, His cry of desertion, uttered on behalf of all humanity at the Cross in Matthew 27:46—“My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”

So this movie reminds us that God can, and does speak through those moments of silence. It also reminds us that God, especially through the person of Jesus Christ, does not just pity us in our suffering and weakness, but actively suffers alongside of us in difficult moments. In Revelation 21:7 we are promised by God—“He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be His God and he shall be My son.” “Silence” as a movie, invites us ultimately to question ourselves—what would we do, and how might we react, if we ever faced anything even remotely like the kind of persecution that Ferreira, Garupe, Rodrigues, and the countless Japanese Christians in the 17th century were confronted with? And so while some will remain critical of the film’s central characters, and the decisions they made amidst very trying circumstances, I for one, from the relative prosperity and comfort of the American church, hesitate to cast too strong a judgment on those men, into whose hearts I certainly cannot see or definitively judge. As I continue to reflect on this movie, I’m drawn towards thinking about not only how I might respond to persecution, but all of the ways in which I currently fail to stand up for Jesus and make spiritual compromises, even while living in a place of physical safety, religious liberty, and economic prosperity such as many other brothers and sisters in Christ have never known. I think the bottom line is that if we are prepared to label a character such as Father Rodrigues as an “apostate” then we are all apostates. But even amidst the flames of this world, and every effort to shake and buffet our faith, we will hold fast to the cross, somehow, and someway even as does Rodrigues, clutching it in his dying hands in the film’s final frame??

I love “Silence as a movie because it doesn’t offer us easy answers; in the process recognizing and treating  with appropriate complexity the subject of persecution, and how that can affect churches and Christians who, in the final analysis remain flawed and human. But as I believe the movie demonstrates, these flaws, if acknowledged, and repented of, ultimately draw us closer to the eternal embrace of the God whose arms are stretched wide for us in pain, but most importantly in love, at the Cross. Maybe the greatest truth expressed in “Silence” is one unspoken in the film’s actual dialogue, but very apparent in its entire ethos and message. The truth that Calvary provided the last possible Word on how much God loves us, how willing He is to suffer with us, and that indeed, His work is finished, as it relates to earning our forgiveness, acceptance, and salvation before the Father. So in those moments of spiritual silence that have followed for the church down through the ages, and in the moments of silence which will surely come for each one of us as Christians, we can have confidence that God remains by our side with a love that no amount of speaking could ever express any clearer.