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.

 

 

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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.

Follow the Star and bring your gift

 

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Even though December 25th has passed, we are still in the Christmas season. In fact, traditionally in many European countries especially, the celebration of Christmas is extended from December 25th through January 6th, the so-called “12 days of Christmas.”  January 6th is the Feast of Epiphany, which traditionally commemorates the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. Matthew 2:1-12 gives the Scriptural account of the Magi’s visit to Jesus.….

2 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”

Well whether we call them the three kings, the wise men, the Magi, there are questions that seem to arise almost immediately when we hear this story. Our holy curiosity kicks in, and we begin to wonder. Who exactly were these visitors to the Christ child? Royalty, astronomers, astrologers, Zoroastrian priests? Where did they come from—after all The East” is a rather vague geographical designation, isn’t it? Were there even necessarily three of them? No one is precisely sure as to the answer to these questions. But when the Magi arrive, the plot of the Christmas narrative thickens, as it were. We no longer have just that simple manger scene with Joseph, Mary, the animals, and maybe an adoring angel or two, with shepherds keeping their vigil from a respectful distance. We no longer have a manger at all in fact—Matthew 2:11 talks about these mysterious visitors coming into a house to worship the infant Jesus. Because they come later, whoever they are and wherever exactly they are arriving from, the Magi’s story allows us to address the question of how do we respond to the Christmas story. After the celebrations and observances of December 25th itself have died down, after that initial explosion of joy at the Savior’s birth—what comes next? The Magi offer us a model for how to respond to Christ for the rest of the year, and indeed for our whole lives. We see in them a reflection of the Great Commission, a consistent faithfulness, and an ability to surmount the interference of a fallen world. Finally, we can learn from the type of gifts that they bring. Simply put, what the Magi do, every time we revisit their remarkable story, is to point us back to Christ.

 

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            Now I mentioned the Magi in relation to the Great Commission a minute ago. The Great Commission of course is Jesus’ last command to His disciples in the Book of Matthew—chapter 28:18-20 to be precise. 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! Now as I’ve mentioned, we don’t know the precise origin of these mysterious visitors, but we can probably assume that coming, as they do from “The East”, that they are not Jewish. Now in Luke’s Nativity narrative we see Jesus’ birth being proclaimed by the angels to the humble shepherds. Thus 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, and Christ comes to everyone, in the unique context of their particular culture and history. This fact is beautifully reflected when you study the nativity scenes prevalent around the Christian world during this season of Christmas. Now many of us probably have a nativity set in our homes, but I think it’s a safe guess that none of them would rival the size, splendor, and elaborate detail of many of the nativity scenes to be found in the Old World. Some of the Southern European nations in particular have a long and storied history of producing nativities which are timeless works of religious art and yet which also reflect the particular cultural traditions of those countries. The nacimientos of Spain, the creches of France, and the presepes of Italy all include such expected figures as the Holy Family, barn animals, shepherds, angels and the Magi. But they also feature peasants dressed in regional costumes, craftsmen, musicians, soldiers, pets, tavern-keepers…and often the architecture of the manger itself and other buildings is more European than Ancient Near-Eastern. The reason for all of these local alterations and additions goes deeper than mere artistic license or preference however. It represents for the artists a statement of belief—a belief that Christ is universal and so he comes to the Spanish, French, Italians, and all other peoples in a way they can understand, and in a unique manner befitting that particular culture. And people from all walks of society, from the most important, down to the most humble, are welcome at His nativity. The Magi thus point us to Christ, and specifically to the Great Commission. Long before the church is launched, before indeed Jesus’ ministry has even begun, representatives of the nations have come to adore the newborn Savior, who will one day give up His life for them, and for all peoples.

 

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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. Now of course at Christmas we have many visual reminders around us of this star which guided the Magi, starting perhaps most prominently with the star that many have atop their Christmas trees. Perhaps my favorite though is the candles in the window. I love driving by a house on a dark December night and seeing the light of those candles shining forth to pierce the winter shadows. Across many different countries and cultures, the candle has been used as an integral part of Christmas observances. For example in Denmark during the days before Christmas, candles are to be seen everyone, alleviating some of the gloom of days in which there may only be six hours of sunlight. Denmark actually uses more candles per capita than any other country in the world–and they are even added to the Christmas tree itself! In Ireland, candles are traditionally placed in windows on Christmas Eve to provide light for the Holy Family and welcome them, in contrast to the inn at which they were turned away in Bethlehem. I used to live in Texas, and there and elsewhere in the American Southwest it is customary at Christmas to display small lighted luminaries all around the house. These are candles set into paper bags, and in the darkness they flicker and glow in a most enchanting manner.

 

All of these Christmas candles serve, like the Star of Bethlehem, to remind us to turn our eyes towards Christ. They further remind us of the truth expressed in John 1—that Jesus is the True Light, who has entered the world to overcome the uncomprehending darkness. So the Magi’s patient quest to follow the star says much about their faithfulness and burning desire to seek out God in their midst. The Star is a fixed point of reference that allows them to orient their quest around it. By keeping their eyes set upon its heavenly light, they avoid becoming distracted, or straying off course. Now here the question can be raised—what is our star today? I believe it is Scripture. Even within the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, in Matthew and Luke, we find Scripture repeatedly referenced, as the prophets of the Old Testament, Isaiah and Micah, are quoted in relation to the coming of Jesus. When we stay rooted in Scripture, it will again and again guide us back to Jesus, however far we may have strayed from Him previously. Jesus spoke on several occasions about the importance of the Word of God, and never more powerfully than in Matthew 24:35. There He proclaims to us “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Bible is permanent, it has endured through the ages, and it is God’s Living Word. Living, because through the Holy Spirit all Christians can understand and interpret it, and living because it is just as applicable a guide for us now as for the saints of old, and will continue to be so for all the centuries to come, until Christ returns. So as the Magi followed the star, which we see reflected atop our Christmas tree, or in the light of a window candle, we should also strive to follow that fixed, sure point of reference and guidance that Scripture provides for us in all areas of the Christian life. As Martin Luther so aptly phrased it, borrowing the language of the Nativity, Scripture is the cradle in which the Christ child lies.”. Through God’s Word, we are led to Jesus most reliably and directly. It is our own Star of Bethlehem.”

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But as we go through the story of the Magi there is an undeniably disturbing element which runs beneath—the role of the murderous King Herod. The black villain of the Christmas story, Herod is a figure who in many ways in strikingly modern. Long before megalomaniacal world leaders such as Stalin, Hitler, or Kim Jong Il, we have this wicked man, so blinded and myopic in his desire to hold onto political power by any means necessary. Instead of learning from the Magi’s devotion he only can think of how to use them as unwitting pawns in his paranoid quest to discover a potential rival for his throne. I see parallels between Herod and another figure, this one fictional, yet also instructive; Jacob Marley. Now anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol” will recognize the character of Jacob Marley, the man who was once partner to Ebenezer Scrooge in their counting house. Marley, like Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser, who cares only for money and yet once he dies, he learns of the terrible error of his ways. He then revisits his old friend. Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge that his only hope for redemption is to become a more generous and compassionate person, one whose every action is not motivated by the desire for profit. Now at first, faced with Marley’s lamentations and remorse, Scrooge proclaims that his old friend was always a good business man. Marley, greatly disturbed, responds: Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Marley then goes on to regret his lack of vision, and perspective in life: Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” Marley realizes that his obsession with the narrow pursuit of profit meant that he permanently missed his chance to make a difference with his wealth, and be a blessing to others. Marley however in Dickens’ fictional world does get a chance to warn his old friend, and thus play a part in the eventual redemption and changed nature of Scrooge. Herod meanwhile, despite his murderous threats and attempts to manipulate the devotion of the Magi is powerless to thwart the eventual and eternal plan of the Lord. Ironically enough in fact, the very efforts of Herod which drive Christ and His family to seek refuge in Egypt end up simply fulfilling Scriptural prophecies. Herod, for all of his evil desire to control events around him for his own purposes, ends up completely subservient to God’s greater plan. Thus the story of the Magi reminds us that no matter how the fallen world might strive against the work of the Lord, God’s purposes and plans will be accomplished. What lasting hope and surpassing peace there is in that knowledge!!

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Finally 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, the last lesson that the Magi teach us 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.

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So when we look at the story of the Magi, we should quite simply live in imitation of them. Remember that Christ has come for all people and for all the nations, a fact these same Magi acknowledged at the moment of His birth. Like they followed the fixed light of the star, let us follow the fixed and constant light that Scripture provides us, a light which will always lead us back to Christ. Just as Herod failed to thwart them, let us never fear the machinations of the wicked, which are ultimately powerless to derail the true plans and purposes of the Almighty. So let us have confidence and trust in the Lord, and like the Magi, follow the star, and bring our gift, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we do, may our actions, lifestyle, and our witness serve to guide others to Him as well. Amen!

We are One Body

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I want to talk about unity. Since Tuesday, November 8th, we have been living with the results of a presidential election which fairly clearly underscored many of the divides that still run deep in American society.  Some people are excited about a change in political power, while others are frustrated, angry, and fearful. And knowing that there are Christian men and women on both sides of the spectrum, I felt it would be a good time to address this political conundrum by turning to a different question. That is, despite the obvious divisions in 2016 America, what about unity—specifically unity amongst those who follow Jesus?? What does unity look like in the Body of Christ, and the Church?? How are believers in the church united across the wide spectrum of different traditions, cultures, and denominations that make up Christianity? Is such unity even important??  It’s interesting that even in the immediate aftermath of this devastating electoral defeat for the Democratic Party, both Hillary Clinton and President Obama had words of encouragement and a unifying spirit to share, rather than expressing bitterness or anger at the man who had just defeated them.

 

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Outgoing President Obama reminded Americans about several important truths as he prepared to hand over the reins of power to someone who, on the surface at least, he would appear to share little in common with. “One thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush’s team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect. Because we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country…We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first.”

 

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Then listen to some words from Hillary Clinton, who despite just having lost the most important election of her life, was still in a conciliatory and positive mood: “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans…I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Now how is it that even following such a devastating political defeat, both Obama and Clinton can be so gracious and magnanimous towards a man with whom they admittedly have some very significant differences? I believe it’s because they both recognize that America, the ideals for which our nation stands, and the overall national unity which they can help foster, is more important than the partisan divide. And I think there is also a belief here that ultimately, those things which unite us as Americans remain stronger even than the obvious divisions that threaten our society.  Now I share all this by way of illustration to return back to my main topic—what does unity in the church look like? What does it look like not only for groups—churches and denominations, but amongst individual believers? What beliefs and practices bring us together, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, as Christians, how do we demonstrate a spiritual unity to the world at large? These are some of the questions I want to examine through the lens of John 17:20-26, as well as some other passages. These verses in John thoare part of a passage that constitutes Jesus’ great final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. And in these last few moments before everything turns against Him, one of the big things that is on Christ’s mind is the unity of those who would call Him Lord. In light of this, I think that the 2.2 billion people around the world who profess to be Christians would all do well to call to mind the shared faith we have in the One Savior and the One God who is great enough to surpass all of our human weaknesses, divisions, and imperfections, to bring us together at the foot of the Cross.

 

To start out, let’s address a question that perhaps is obvious to some of you, but still is important to unpack a little. Because before we can fully understand why unity in the church is so important, we need to understand where the church itself came from. And no, I’m not referring to the Baptist church, or indeed any one particular denomination. This is a much larger question regarding the universal church. Who started it—who was its founder?? Now those of you who know me probably know that I’m a history guy—I love to study the past, and something that’s always been intriguing to me is how things get started. Because almost any entity you can think of has what we might call an origin story—and often that origin or beginning leads us back to one particular person, a founder.

 

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Cities have founders—Romulus and Remus were the two legendary founders of Rome, nourished, so the story goes, by a female wolf.

 

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Nations have founders too—Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan statesman and military leader who in the early 19th century, played a key role in the establishment of five South American countries as independent from Spain–Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the nation that would bear his name—Bolivia.

 

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Companies have founders—the Bell Telephone Company, established back in 1877, was started by none other than Alexander Graham Bell—the main who incidentally also invented the telephone.

 

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If you’re ever been to Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, you can see a large statue of Walt Disney standing hand-in-hand with his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary vision of one man, whose fertile imagination launched an entire multimedia and entertainment empire.

 

 

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But when we talk about the Church—we can talk about a founder greater than any other you could possibly imagine. Cities, nations, companies, even creations of fiction and the imagination, all have their founders—but in each case—these individuals built something that ended up being greater than themselves. But in the case of the church—its founder, Jesus was infinitely greater than what He created, yet He lived, and died even to serve His creation! The church, according to Scripture is not a man-made entity, the result of politics and hierarchy, but the creation of none other than God—in the person of Jesus Christ. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18—“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Furthermore we know that the church, being once established by Christ will prevail ultimately because of the sacrificial love that Jesus has for the community of believers. It is a love that perfectly exemplifies the type of love a husband should have for his wife, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Christians call the church the “Body of Christ”—a term that has twofold significance. It recognizes on the one hand that all of us as individual believers come together in a corporate fashion to compose a unified entity that should live and work in the Spirit of Jesus. This phrase also reminds us that Jesus has sacrificed Himself in love for the welfare of all Christians, both individually, and corporately.

 

So for all of its flaws and shortcomings, when we speak of the church as a whole, let us never forget that the idea of the church and its founding take us back to none other than Jesus. That truth alone should serve as a powerful reminder for us that the church is an institution worthy of respect and worthy of our best efforts to serve in and through it for the cause of Jesus. But within each individual church, as well as across many different churches and denominations, what is it that actually binds us together in a shared sense of value and purpose? What does a belief in Christ lead us to profess and practice in common? Well I want to highlight just a few truths here, which hopefully will further impress upon you the importance of unity within the Body of Christ. Because while it can be all too easy to focus on what separates us from other Christians, we must not lose sight of the great number of cherished beliefs that have been held in common by the vast majority of Christian men and women down through the centuries from the time of Jesus until our present age. Even if you think you have little in common with a Catholic priest in Rome, a Russian Orthodox grandmother in St. Petersburg, a Pentecostal congregation in Rio, or African-American Baptists in Alabama—there is an amazing commonality of belief and practice that binds us together as Christ followers. That commonality extends first from our beliefs—in one God, and in the Savior, Jesus Christ. A statement of universal Christian belief that I particularly value is the Apostle’s Creed. It dates back to at least the 700’s AD, and contains a powerful summary of those essential doctrines and truths that most Christians share across denominational and cultural boundaries. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” Now I won’t try to unpack all of the beliefs referenced in the Apostle’s Creed, but most of us who are believers can recognize in this statement a fairly accurate summary of a good deal of essential Christian doctrine.  And let me just add a brief semantic explanation here. In the Apostle’s Creed, “catholic” is a lowercase word, that is referring not to the Roman Catholic Church, but is being used in its other sense to mean “universal” and “all-embracing.” Christians are also bound together by things that we practice in common. For example, although the understanding of how exactly  to carry out these ceremonies may vary from church to church, virtually all Christians in some way observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. Christians worldwide also share in the church calendar, sometimes known as the Liturgical Year. Although the dates and customs of celebration may differ, almost every Christian will celebrate holidays like Easter and Christmas.

 

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Perhaps the most powerful factor in binding us together as Christ followers is our common adherence to the Word of God—the Bible. The power and permanence of God’s Word has been a strong anchor for the universal church down through the ages—through changing times and seasons, the authority and witness of Scripture remains steadfast. Jesus promises us this—in Matthew 24:35 He assures us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Then we can agree with and echo the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:89—“Forever O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” Now sometimes you might hear people say something like, “Well yes Christians everywhere use the Bible but it’s been changed and distorted so much down through the years by all of the different translations!” So I want to share with you a brief anecdote about how one Christian answered such an objection. Horizons International is a ministry located here in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. Their founder is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli before coming to faith in Christ as a teenager. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so often when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, which is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them, “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! Despite the different translations that exist, we should be confident that the essential message and truth of God’s Word, the Holy Bible has been preserved, and will continue to be preserved by the Holy Spirit.

 

Some people perhaps wonder how does the concept of unity relate to the obvious diversity that is present within the church?? And here I’m speaking not only of diversity of cultures, languages, races, but also a diversity of different personalities, gifts, and talents. I remember having a conversation with a student recently on campus at CU, and although he’s not a Christian yet, he’s been reading the Bible some with me, and is definitely spiritually open. But anyway, his concern was that becoming a Christian meant he would have to conform to a certain type of personality, with certain interests and hobbies, maybe even a particular way of talking or dressing—and I tried to assure him that while becoming a Christian does mean being molded increasingly into the person and character of Christ, it does not mean that you have to lose your individual identity, or lose those unique characteristics that make you different from everyone else! Scripture talks about this—and how unity within the church can still serve to highlight and celebrate the diversity of different gifts, talents, and abilities that are present. Listen to Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6—“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of you calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” So first, Paul is laying out the case for our unity as believers. But then listen to what follows—“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift…And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul expresses a similar thought—“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.” Paul then says later in this same chapter “Now you are the Body of Christ, and members individually.”

 

 

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Those of you who know me well know that my great passion in sports is college football, and my favorite team is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now I have to brag a little on my home state here, because in case you didn’t know, Alabama has been one of the best teams in college football over the past decade—during which time we’ve won four national titles, and an amazing 91% of their overall games. This remarkable run of success is largely due to their talented head coach Nick Saban. He calls his coaching style and system “The Process” and a key part of it is leaving nothing to chance, and building a comprehensive team of experts to guide the Alabama football program in every possible way. You might think that to be of service to a dominant college football program you either need to be an athletic young man between the ages of 18-22 or an experienced coach that lives and breathes football strategy 24/7. But Saban has recognized that there are many other pieces to the puzzle of constructing a championship caliber football team. So at Alabama the strength and conditioning coach is an equally important part of the program, as is the nutritionist, the academic advisors and tutors, and even a sports psychologist. In this way, Saban leaves nothing unaddressed that could possibly affect the on-field performance of his players, and he’s quick to mention how all of these diverse figures are equally important to the overall success of the team.

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There is a misconception amongst some that if you really want to be useful in the Kingdom of God, and serve the Lord, you have to devote yourself to full-time vocational ministry, or become a missionary. Now of course we need good pastors, and missionaries, and even campus ministry leaders, but it is also absolutely vital to the Kingdom of God that we have Christian engineers, Christian doctors, Christian business people, Christian teachers, and so on. So you should never think that you are of any less importance to the Body of Christ because you don’t do ministry as your career. A lot of people can get hung up on the decision about whether they should go into ministry or not as a profession, and while that might be a discussion that some will need to have, I think perhaps the larger and overarching question is prefaced by a statement. As Christians, all of you are going into the business of ministry and missions, and from there it’s just a matter of finding out what is your most effective mission field to serve in. And a Christian serving in whatever walk of life God has placed them in is just as important and vital to the health of the overall church as a pastor, missionary, church planter, or campus minister.

 

We’ve talked about how unity in the church comes from shared beliefs and ultimately from Christ Himself—so what does Jesus say on this subject? Well there are many passages we could turn to, but I want to focus on just a few verses for a moment. In Luke 9:49-50, Christ briefly addresses the question of sectarianism. This can be defined as the anger and strife that emerges between two different subsections or factions within an overall group. And if you know much at all about the history of Christianity, you know there has sadly been a great deal of blood shed over the years in support of sectarian quarrels—Catholics fighting Protestants, Orthodox fighting Catholics, even religious violence between citizens of  the same nation—such as was experienced in Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century. And it is clear from Scripture that none of this internecine violence and division is ultimately pleasing to Christ. Listen to Luke 9:49-50—“Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us. But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.”  

 

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Well that brings us to our central passage, John 17:20-26. Now, it’s interesting, but a few chapters before this prayer, in John 10:16 Jesus makes a significant allusion to the fact that His message will soon spread far beyond just this small band of followers and the largely Jewish world He lives in to reach many different peoples: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” So as these other, future believers come into faith, Christ emphasizes the unity that should prevail. Then, in John 17, during those last few precious hours before His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for Himself and His disciples. But as we read a minute ago in verses 20-22, Christ also prays for many others who will one day believe—that even includes us as Christians today! “I do not pray for these alone but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.” There’s much to unpack from just these three verses, but basically Christ is praying for the great universal church, for all those who will come to faith through the teachings that will be written and passed down by those original 12 Apostles. And that includes us now. How cool is it to know that more than 2000 years ago, Jesus was already praying for you! Note also that when Jesus desires us to have unity amongst ourselves as believers, He’s calling us to model a much greater unity which exists in heaven. Because when Christ says that He and the Father are one, He’s referring to a perfect unity between God the Father and Jesus the Son as part of the Trinity. And the Church is called to honor and reflect that heavenly unity. Then listen to verse 23 in John 17. “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Here is a reference to the world knowing that Jesus has been sent by God. Christ is trying to remind us that the extent to which the universal church can either display unity, or a lack of it—will powerfully affect its witness. To put it in simpler terms—as my pastor Jay Wolf used to say back in Alabama, no one wants to come to church to see a fight! If those on the outside, non-believers, only see Christians continually arguing amongst ourselves, how attractive and compelling a testimony is that really, coming from people who claim to follow the Prince of Peace?? Make no mistake—a spirit of discord, strife, disunity and hatred that springs up between groups of Christians comes from Satan himself. You see the devil can so easily twist our seemingly spiritual feelings around. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with a new church being established, or even a new denomination—this has happened periodically throughout history, according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But when that new church or group of believers is consumed with pride at their exclusivity and even led to believe that they alone have a monopoly on the truth, and when they start to look with contempt and derision on other Christians—well that is where the spirit of Satan very well may have superseded the Holy Spirit, and be at work. I heard a joke one time—“A man went to heaven and was being shown around by St. Peter. As they went from cloud to cloud they came to various doors which St. Peter would open. One showed a large group rolling on the floor and talking in tongues.  “Our Pentecostals” Peter said. Next was a serious ritual. “Our Catholics”, he replied. Then they saw a group engaged in a beautiful choral performance—“The Episcopalians”, St Peter offered. At the next cloud, Peter didn’t open the door but instead put his forefinger to his lips in a hushed motion and they both tiptoed past. Once past, the man asked what was that all about? “Those are the Baptists”, Peter explained. “And they think they are the only ones here!!”

 

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Now as I have already alluded to—there is nothing wrong with having different denominations or churches—their existence alone does not necessarily constitute an offense against the unity of the Body of Christ. Because we can have differences which don’t have to lead to disputes, or mutual distrust and dislike. We can think of different churches, or even different denominations like families. Now everyone knows that their family isn’t perfect, and yet I bet that most of us will at the same time stick up for our families. I’m a Winslow—my family has certain things we value, and they’re important to us, they’re not just arbitrary things, but maybe there are some differences with my family and your family. That’s ok—we don’t have to be exactly the same, maybe it’s even good if we’re different. It’s more interesting that way, and we can learn some things from one another. My denominational family is Baptist—that’s one major reason why I came on staff with Christian Challenge—which is the Baptist campus ministry at CU-Boulder, and not with a non-denominational group like Navs, or Cru, or Intervarsity. I am proud to be a Baptist, I can tell you some specific reasons why I am Baptist, and I would even say that I think there are some things we do really well as a church and a denomination. But by no means do I think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that the Spirit of Christ isn’t present and working in other churches and denominations. So all that to say, when we talk about unity, we need to make sure it’s unity for the right reasons, and a unity that is centered on Christ. Let’s go back to John 17:24-25—“Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me.” It’s clear to me from Christ’s Words, that our unity should be centered on Him—because faith in Jesus alone, not in our good works, not in our church membership, not in anything else, is what will bring about our salvation. Along those lines, I have a pretty simple criteria for what makes a church or a denomination Christian, in terms of their doctrine. You can get complex and look at a big statement of belief, but I have a very concise rubric that I borrowed from my pastor back in Alabama—“Jesus plus nothing.” If someone is saying that to be a Christian means believing in Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or believing in Jesus plus devotion to the Saints and Virgin Mary, or even something that sounds really good like believing in Jesus plus promoting social justice—they’re off base for me, and they’re missing the point. Because anything that is added to faith in Christ and then presented as an essential component of what it means to be Christian, is unnecessary. Jesus alone is enough. So we of course should reserve the right to dissociate with groups which have either removed Christ or added to Him being at the center of the church and Christian practice. So in summary, what we are talking about this morning is not unity at all costs, and it’s not an inauthentic unity for the sake of political correctness. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg concluded a period of destructive warfare between Lutheran German princes and members of the Holy Roman Empire. The peace settlement’s religious implications were defined by a Latin term–Cuius regio, eius religio, being translated—“Whose realm his religion.” In others words, the prince of a particular region would now determine the religion of his subjects based on his own beliefs. A Lutheran prince’s subjects would have to be Lutheran, a Catholic prince’s Catholic. Now this is spiritual unity of one kind—but it was forced, and therefore artificial. I would even hazard to say this type of spiritual unity does not honor God because it proceeds from man-made strictures rather than the heartfelt convictions of individuals.

 

 

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I want to conclude by talking in some very practical terms about what unity in the Body of Christ can look like, and how we can promote it. Because I firmly believe that promoting unity and ecumenism, a spirit of cooperation amongst those in the universal church begins not with bishops, popes, pastors, or presidents of denominational conventions. No, it starts on the grass-roots level, with people just like you and me. Ordinary Christians, who, nonetheless, can be called by God to do some extraordinary things. And many of the same things that promote a healthy walk with God as individuals will help us to be ambassadors of unity and reconciliation amongst the Body of Christ. So if you’re wanting to promote unity in the Body, ask yourself—are you striving to embody the nine Fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23?? What about those superlative qualities of love as listed in 1 Corinthians 13—are you making your best effort to live those out?? Love is paramount here—because it is the one quality that Christ highlights as the defining hallmark, and characteristic of those who would be His followers. Listen to John 13:34-5—“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Then, in John 17:26, Jesus says “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” In addition to the qualities we should demonstrate individually, what about corporately?? What does a church that is unified, and actively working to promote unity amongst the rest of the Body of Christ look like?? Well the Book of Acts gives us a beautiful portrait of how the early church came together in harmony to promote the general welfare and furtherance of the Gospel of Christ. Acts 4:32-35—“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” Of course the early church wasn’t perfect—we can garner evidence of all the doctrinal disputes and problems they endured from the early letters of Paul. Yet there is the portrait here nonetheless of a unified Body of believers whose priority is each other’s mutual welfare as well as the spread of the Gospel message.

So what might your role be in promoting unity amongst the Body of Christ?? We certainly don’t have to always agree on everything, and as I’ve tried to show, a diversity of belief and practice can be the working of the Holy Spirit, just as the Spirit has also distributed a variety of different spiritual gifts and talents among us. But we should always be striving to build bridges amongst one another. Let’s follow the words of Paul in Romans 12:18—“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” If you can do that, and promote unity amongst all believers, you will be giving a powerful testimony to the way in which Christ can unite peoples across boundaries of race, language, history and culture. And today, in an age where there appears to be so much polarization and disunity, for all Christ followers to proclaim and live out the One Thing, Same Thing together is a priceless opportunity. Don’t miss it—be part of it—be one, even as Christ and the Father are. Amen!

The Tree of Life

Fall has always been my favorite season, but until recently, I was never fortunate enough to live in a place where you could experience a true autumn. So these last several years in Colorado have been a real treat–enjoying the crisp cool days and chilly nights during this transitional time of year, but above all marveling at the beauty of the foliage. Colorado is somewhat famous for its aspen trees and for just a few short weeks in either late September, or early October (depending on the elevation) they treat everyone to a riot of fall colors–vivid yellows, oranges, and reds. The leaves appear to “shiver” as they prepare to fall and hence the trees are sometimes termed “quaking aspens.” During the fall, I love to go up to one of the aspen groves in higher elevations, and lose myself in the scenic beauty of God’s Creation. As I’ve thought about trees during this fall season, it brings to mind the fact that the tree is a powerful, recurring symbol used throughout Scripture.

 

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Our teaching theme for the students this semester is “One Thing, Same Thing”, which is all about the fundamentals of our faith, and how to have a walk, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And one of the things we wanted to do for the semester was to find an image, a recurring illustration we could use that would help convey our teaching in a visual way. We decided on the image of a tree. And so one of our artistically gifted students in Christian Challenge, Jose Canizares, made a beautiful painting of a tree to give us a good visual illustration. I’ve entitled this post “The Tree of Life”, because ultimately what I desire for each of my students in Christian Challenge is the opportunity to begin or continue a life that, just like a healthy tree, is firmly rooted, a life firmly rooted in the promises and person of Jesus Christ.

 

 

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Now, as I started preparing this post, I was reading a little bit about famous, unusual and noteworthy trees from around the world, and the story of one in particular really caught my attention. You see a photograph of it above, the Tree of Tenere. It was located in a very remote area of the Sahara Desert in northeast Niger. So remote in fact, that this tree was reputed to be the most isolated one in the entire world, the only one for some 250 miles in all directions. Despite its harsh surroundings, the tree had developed deep roots, deep enough to reach the water table some 100 feet underground, and keep it sustained. For years the tree was celebrated as a symbol of life amidst scarcity, and the local Touareg people considered it sacred. Yet this fragile, beautiful symbol of the perseverance of nature, which even the harsh desert couldn’t kill, was gone in an instant as a result of the carelessness and stupidity of humanity. A drunk trunk driver struck, and killed the Tree of Tenere in 1973. Imagine the callous disregard of this deed. In this whole dead, empty expanse of sand, that individual managed to take away the one symbol of life!!

 

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I share that story with you because it reminds me in some ways of another famous tree, one that we read about in the Book of Genesis. For when God first created humanity, He placed our ancestors, Adam and Eve, in a beautiful garden, one filled with lovely plant life. Listen to this description in Genesis 2:9 of the vegetation found in the Garden of Eden—“And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Then a few verses later, God gives this command to Adam, in Genesis 2:16-17—“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” These would appear to be pretty simple instructions, right? God has created a wonderful garden for Adam, and then his companion Eve, to live in. There are no doubt all variety of different fruits and plants that they can enjoy, with just this one restriction. And yet in Genesis 3, we discover something very interesting about our human condition, and our human psychology. For what is it in us as humans, that would make us disregard the 99 wonderful gifts that God offers to us, and go after the one thing He wishes to protect us from? But the temptation of the serpent, and this perverse human impulse to do the forbidden prevail, and so Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The curses of death, work, and pain in childbirth follow, and to top it off, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden. We are told in Genesis 3:24 that God places a heavenly being, a cherubim to stand east of Eden, and with a flaming sword guard the way to the Tree of Life. So the tree first appears in Scripture then as a symbol of the Fall of humanity, and of our own sinful disobedience. Here’s the question: After this inauspicious beginning, how can we ever return to Eden, and go back to the Tree of Life? Well keep that question in mind as we begin to answer it by looking at some other tree images that occur in Scripture.

 

 

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Psalm 1 is a passage which uses the image of the tree to help illustrate for us how we can enjoy a healthy, and fruitful relationship with God by being well-rooted, and choosing our location wisely. Or to put it another way, this Psalm talks about the importance of keeping good company, and surrounding ourselves with others who are also pursuing God, and will encourage and help us in our faith journeys. Listen to Psalm 1:1—“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.” So you see here, the Psalmist is describing someone who doesn’t imitate the unrighteous or allow themselves to be influenced by those who are not following God. We all naturally tend to be influenced and shaped by those around us, and it can be so easy, without even fully realizing it, to begin to take on some of the characteristics and attitudes of your friends, and the people who you spend the most time with. So we must strive to make sure that people we’re putting ourselves into community with are going to be positive influences, especially in the spiritual realm. In verse 2, the Psalmist continues by describing how the person who is well-rooted spiritually will delight in the knowledge and pursuit of the Lord—“his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” One reason why we study Scripture, and even meditate over it, is so that we can learn how to more faithfully walk with the Lord. Then, look at Psalm 1:3. Here we get the tree image in detail—“He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.” What a beautiful word picture–a tree that is has deep roots, because it’s located in a good place, specifically near a body of water, which is the source of life and sustenance. Notice too that this tree proves its health by bringing forth fruit—this is a topic we’ll come back to in more detail in just a few moments.

 

 

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I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite species of trees, and one which is very much associated with the West and the Rocky Mountains is the Aspen tree. This picture is actually of an aspen grove called Pando, located in Utah. And what’s fascinating is that although this would appear to be a grove of many different trees, it’s actually considered by scientists to be just one single living organism. You see each of these aspen trees is genetically identical, and supported by one vast, interconnected root system. While the individual trunks may only live to be 100-130 years old, researchers believe the root system may be as old as 80,000 years!! This beautiful grove, this single living organism illustrates the idea that as Christians, our ultimate spiritual health comes from not only connecting to and associating with one another, but also connecting with Christ. And though the church features a wonderful diversity of different gifts, backgrounds, and individual stories, despite our uniqueness, Scripture says we are also One in Christ. As Paul writes in Romans 12:4-5—“We have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ”. In a similar fashion, in one of the last prayers of His life, Jesus, in John 17:20-21, asks that all of His future followers would be unified by their belief in Him: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I, in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that you sent Me.” So as we strive to follow God individually, let us seek also to find fellowship and unity with one another based on this common purpose, and the common salvation we can share through Christ.

 

 

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the original Lloyd’s Coffee shop in London

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Lloyd’s of London today

Now as we consider the image of the tree, we should also note the importance of good soil. A healthy tree can only grow where there is adequate soil, and when the seed has a chance to develop. This was the message of the Parable of the Sower given by Jesus in Matthew 13. As it happens, Matthew 13 also contains another parable of Christ with a similar message, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Listen to Matthew 13:31-32—“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” Certainly, one of the truths we can discern from this teaching is that big things can sometimes come from very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. In 1688, Edward Lloyd ran a coffee house in the city of London. It was frequented by sailors, merchants, and ship-owners. Due to the nature of his clientele, Lloyd offered reliable shipping news and weather forecasts in addition to serving food and beverages. Gradually, the shipping industry took more precedence than selling coffee, and eventually Lloyd went into the insurance business full-time. Now, some three-plus centuries later, Lloyd’s of London is headquartered in a slightly more imposing edifice than that original coffee shop, and is perhaps the best known insurance company in the world.

 

 

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A young James Hendrix

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Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterrey Pop Festival, 1967

James was a young man from Seattle, a high-school dropout, who, after a failed stint in the 101st Airborne Division, decided to try and make a career in music, since more than anything in the world, he loved to play guitar. He moved to Tennessee, but as a black man in the early 1960’s his professional options were limited. He ended up on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, playing clubs that catered to an African-American audience and serving as a backing musician for many different performers such as Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. But after a couple of years, with his career going nowhere, he moved first to New York, and then in 1966 all the way to London to try and make it. And it would be there in England, that the world was first come to know of Jimi Hendrix, who in just a few short years during the second half of the 1960’s completely revolutionized the music of the electric guitar.

 

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Born in 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had lived a hard life, rearing ten children on a farm in upstate New York, only five of whom lived past infancy. And yet in her spare time, she enjoyed some creative pursuits, such as quilting, and embroidering. However at age 76, she was forced to give these up due to arthritis. Her sister suggested that she try painting as a new hobby. So in the early 1930’s, this self-taught artist began to paint simple scenes of American life–the holidays, and customs of the now bygone era she remembered from her childhood. Then in 1938, an art collector named Louis Caldor happened to be passing through the little hamlet of Hoosick Falls, New York. He stopped at a drugstore, and bought a few locally-made paintings he liked for between $3 and $5 apiece. Over the next few years Moses’ works slowly gained more and more acclaim, until eventually the farmer’s wife known as “Grandma Moses” gained exhibitions in some of the most prestigious museums in the country. By the time of her death in 1961, she was known around the world as an American cultural icon. One of her paintings today hangs in the White House, and for an artist whose initial work sold for $3, she had a painting in 2006 auctioned off for $1.2 million dollars! So in the business, music, and art worlds just to name a few examples, big things can come out of very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. To return to the parable in Matthew 13—Jesus wants to demonstrate with this message from the mustard seed, how from the humble origin of a tiny seed, given the right soil and enough patience, a great tree can spring up. Notice too that this tree is great not just because of its own size and prominence, but because it is able to offer a place of refuge and shelter to the birds. In other words, a mark of the life rooted in God is that such a person will influence and impact the lives of many others. And it doesn’t take much to get started. So those who are thinking that they don’t have much to offer God right now, or who are worried that they lack the amount of faith or the spiritual desire to start, don’t fear!! Because just like the tiny mustard seed in this parable, with God’s help your life can eventually sprout and transform into a sturdy tree of faith—a tree of life!!

 

 

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Earlier, as we looked at Psalm 1, we saw how the tree described there demonstrates its health by bearing fruit. So let’s talk just a little more about that idea. Now you don’t have to be a farmer, or an arboreal specialist to know that if you plant an apple tree, or a pear tree, one way to ascertain its overall health is to check the fruit. And just because the tree might be tall, and have big branches, and otherwise look good—none of that really matters too much if it’s not producing healthy fruit, because it is then failing the very purpose for which it was planted and cultivated. Now I realize that all of us have different spiritual gifts, and talents. Each will serve the Lord in a different way—that’s fine, and that’s part of the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God. But we all must find our places of service!! Because just to sit back, and watch others, or to think that being a Christian merely means that you’ve obtained salvation, and are saved from going to hell, reveals a profound misunderstanding of our purpose as Christ followers. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms in Matthew 7:17-19 about the importance, indeed the necessity of bearing fruit. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Now these are strong words from Christ, and again maybe some people wonder about how exactly they can bear fruit in the Kingdom? Maybe you think that you don’t have the gift of being a pastor, or a teacher, or an evangelist—but there are still so many things you can do. God has uniquely given each one of us a platform, some special ability that you can use to serve Him and others. So, it is imperative that you discover how you can be not just a passive believer in God, but an active follower of His!! The great Christian author C.S. Lewis explained what it means to bear fruit by using another metaphor—that of the egg. In a passage from his classic work Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: “When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Do you see Lewis’ point here? To bear fruit is to realize our full, God-given potential. That is what we are called to do, and the fruit we bear, is our witness to others. By that fruit, outsiders, non-Christians, people who don’t yet have a relationship with God, can know what that looks like. But in order for this to take place, we have to become active in our faith!!

 

 

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Well in closing, let’s talk about what is really the heart of the tree—the trunk, and then what extends from the trunk—the branches. A healthy tree, we might say, is one in which the branches spread wide and strong, twisting outward and upwards from that central trunk. But how much good is even the strongest, sturdiest branch, on its own—if it gets disconnected from the trunk?? You have to learn that you can’t do it on your own. This is certainly true in the sports world, even for the greatest individual players. After his team went undefeated during the 2005 regular season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bought an Audi Q-7 luxury SUV for each of his starting five offensive linemen. In case you’re wondering, the Q-7 retails for around $50,000!! In 2012, when Adrian Peterson rushed for an NFL-best 2,097 yards, the Minnesota Vikings star showed his gratitude by purchasing personalized snowmobiles for the members of his offensive line. Now Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson are household names, major stars in the world of sports, but even the most ardent Patriots and Vikings fans might be hard-pressed to name all five starting offensive linemen on their respective squads. But Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and many other NFL stars instinctively know that for all of their individual talents, without the dedication and skill of their offensive lines, they could accomplish nothing in football. The role of offensive linemen is basically to be like a human shield. They block and hit people, pushing them out of the way so that hopefully the quarterback and running back—or whoever is carrying the ball on offense, won’t get hit. It’s a punishing occupation—but offensive linemen essentially sacrifice themselves and their bodies so that others on the team can have success. So back to that central truth–you can’t do it on your own. And that is very much the case in your spiritual life too. Jesus teaches us this in John 15:5 using a tree metaphor: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” 

 

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The reason that we should abide in Christ is because that is how we reflect our love for Him. And this love on our parts is but a pale reflection of the great love that Jesus has demonstrated already for all humanity. For Christ took it upon Himself to be the sacrifice for sin. He died on the cross, but that cross can be envisioned in another form, as 1 Peter 2:24 describes in reference to Jesus: “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the three, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.” The same tree which was a symbol of our sinful downfall in Genesis is now recast in 1 Peter as the symbol of God’s redemptive work on the Cross. I asked earlier how could we, after the sin of Adam and Eve, ever make it back to the Garden of Eden, and that Tree of Life which we’d been banished from? Well now we have the answer. It’s nothing that we could ever do—but that which Christ has already done!! Let’s look briefly at Revelation 22. Revelation comes at the very end of Scripture, and is kind of like a fast-forward through spiritual history, to give us a glimpse of how God will one day bring all of His great redemptive work as well as history itself to a perfect conclusion. And in the last chapter of Revelation, we get a portrait of heaven itself. Hear this description of heaven from Revelation 22:1-3—“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.” Do you realize what’s happened here?? In the end, we shall once again have access to the Tree of Life, and we’ll be healed of that curse pronounced on Adam and Eve back in Genesis 3. Our lives will then perfectly resemble the tree planted by the waters in Psalm 1. All of these different Scriptural images of trees are fulfilled and perfected here in this last passage in Revelation 22. And again what makes this possible—what allows us to once again have access to the Tree of Life, is because Jesus gave His life for us on a Tree, on the Cross. S0–what kind of plant will you be?? Will your seed sprout up, and if it does, will it develop in a strong, healthy tree, that is in community with others, is well-rooted and watered, draws life to itself, and bears fruit?? The way to do that is to stay rooted in Christ. Invite Him to be Lord of your life, and strive to follow His example every day. Don’t feel like everything has to be perfect in your life before you follow Jesus, but heed the words of that beautiful old hymn—“Come ye weary, heavy-laden/Lost and ruined by the fall/If you tarry until you’re better/You will never come at all/I will arise and go to Jesus/He will embrace me in His arms/In the arms of my dear Savior/Oh, there are ten thousand charms.” If it’s rooted in a relationship with Christ, your tree then will indeed grow, and will serve to bless and be an example to others. May we all have the chance to prosper, and grow, while staying rooted in the life-giving truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

The Word of God–nothing more, and nothing less

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Most people who know me fairly well would agree that I’m somewhat of a bibliophile. My apartment is crammed full of books, and that’s not even counting the many tomes that are still back at my parent’s house in Alabama. Ever since I was small, I’ve always enjoyed spending time in libraries and bookstores, and I really credit my parents for instilling in me a love of reading as a child. I read in many different genres–novels, plays, biographies, memoirs, history, travelogues, cultural studies, art history, theology–the list goes on. But what constantly amazes me is how one book above all, The Bible, has exerted such an inordinate influence over almost every conceivable branch of Western letters. In fact, even if you’re not a Christian, if you grew up in the West, you have been somehow shaped by this book. Because Biblical themes, standards, and ideals have left an indelible impression not only on the literature, but on the art, laws, culture, and psyche of the Western world. However living as I do in a fairly secular place like Boulder, Colorado, I often hear people saying something along these lines—“yes we know that the Bible is an important book, from a literary, and cultural standpoint. But is it something that we can still consider reliable as a guide to life in 2016?” And that’s a very legitimate question to explore, which is want I want to do in the rest of this blog post. I want to endeavor to answer some of these questions: How can we trust that that Bible is the Word of God, which has been passed down faithfully through the ages, across so many different cultures and languages?? And furthermore, why specifically is it that Christians make the Bible into their guide for faith and practice? Even if we accept the authority of the Bible–how do we go about interpreting it? How can we study the Bible effectively, and begin to live out what it teaches? I’ll start by laying out some claims about why we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint. Then we’ll get into why the Bible is our primary guide to the Christian life, how we can interpret Scripture, and finally some suggestions for further Biblical study.

 

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Let me set the stage initially though by talking about the power of the Word. Our words—mine, yours, everyone’s, have power. Words have power to inspire. Where I live, here in Colorado, the Broncos are king, but personally I’ve always been more of a college football than NFL fan. Maybe it has something to do with coming from Alabama haha. But I love to study the history of the sport, and read about famous coaches. And even though I’m no fan of the team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have produced some legendary sideline leaders over the years, and none greater than Knute Rockne. He coached them from 1918-1930, and during that span won 105 games and five national championships. Rockne, in addition to being a great tactician, was known for his rousing locker-room speeches. The most famous of them all was his “win one for the Gipper” speech, given during the half-time of the 1928 Notre Dame-Army game. George Gipp had been an All-American halfback for the Irish, but he caught pneumonia, and died an untimely death at the end of his last college season in 1920. So the story goes, before he passed away, Gipp made one last request to his coach, Knute Rockne: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Rockne apparently saved this inspirational story for nearly a decade before using it to fire up his Irish team to come out in the second half and defeat Army, 12-6.

 

 

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Words, even just a few, if carefully selected, have the power to paint indelible images. One of my favorite poems is called “The Eagle” by 19th century British writer Alfred Lord Tennyson. I love it because in just a few lines, Tennyson paints an unforgettable visual portrait of this majestic bird: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Words have the power to convict. I did my undergrad at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and as at many universities, we had an Honor Code there. But while the Honor Code is certainly not unique to Vanderbilt, there is a special story attached to it that I love to recall. Dr. Madison Sarratt was a math professor, and later a vice-chancellor at Vanderbilt in the mid 20th century. And this is what he once announced to a class before he gave them a test, in order to get his students to take the idea of the Honor Code, and their academic integrity seriously: “Today I am going to give you two examinations—one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry, for there are many good people in this world today who can’t pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.”

 

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So indeed, words have power. And this is the principle at the heart of why Scripture, the written Word of God matters. Interestingly enough, at the Beginning of all things, there were words. According to the Book of Genesis, the Lord God did not fashion the universe and all creation through His hands, or by stirring up some cosmic mishmash together. No, He spoke everything into existence. The Power of the Word. Later, in John 1, Jesus is referred to as the “Word of God”, and then as the “Word made flesh”. So Words matter, Words have significance, and the Words of Scripture, as we will see, are reliable.

 

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So let’s discuss that question now a little further—how is it that we know we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint? I could really use the rest of this post just on this one topic, but I do want to give you just a few reasons as to why you can trust that the Bible is reliable, and has been faithfully preserved down through the ages. Most people are probably familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient Biblical manuscripts were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in Caves near the Dead Sea in Israel starting in late 1946. Over the next decade a total of 981 manuscripts were found, and documented. What did they contain?? Well there were portions of every book in the Old Testament except for one, including a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. The most remarkable thing about this discovery from an archaeological standpoint is that before this time, the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible we had dated to about the 10 century AD. The oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls go back to the 4th century, BC. So in other words, this discovery brought to light Biblical manuscripts that were over 1000 years older than any that had been previously found!! From a faith standpoint though, the most significant thing about the scrolls is that their appearance and subsequent translation has not significantly altered the Biblical manuscript. Except for a few grammatical differences and slight textual variants, what researchers and scholars found again and again was that the Jewish scribes had been extraordinarily faithful in copying and passing down their scrolls from one generation to the next, over a period of thousands of years! In fact even today, the Jewish people continue to treat the Word of God with extraordinary reverence. Specially trained scribes actually copy out the entire Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, in longhand, for use as a scroll in synagogue worship. When the scribe is being copied, if any mistakes are made, the entire page must be torn out, and done over again. And once the scroll is completed, a process which can take as long as a year-and-a-half, its pages must never be touched directly by the human hand. Instead, a special pointer is used to follow along in the text when reading.

 

 

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Now, some of you may be wondering just how it is that these Scriptures, which have been translated so faithfully and treated with such reverence across the ages, even came to be collected together in the first place? After all, some of the manuscripts discovered from among the Dead Sea Scrolls were fragments from texts that are not now found in Scripture. So how was it decided about which books to include in the Bible? Well it’s a fascinating process to study what is known the Canonization of the Bible—how the individual books were selected. In the case of both the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Greek New Testament, this process of Canonization was a lengthy one, rather than a single event. The first portion of the Hebrew Bible to be grated authoritative status was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament—the books of the Law. By around 400 BC in the years following the Jewish exile in Babylon, the Torah was accepted as part of the Canon. Next to be accepted were the writings of the Prophets, by approximately 200 BC. Finally, towards the end of the 1st century AD, especially following a critical council held at Jamnia in 90 AD, the remaining books of the Old Testament gradually came into widespread acceptance in the various Jewish communities. But how did religious leaders and scholars decide which books to include, and which to exclude?? Well, there were several possible criteria—was the book written in the Hebrew language, was it believed to be Divinely-inspired, did it conform enough, in terms of teaching and content with other texts, and was it in widespread use amongst the various Jewish communities scattered around the Ancient Near East?? And what about the Canonization of the New Testament, written in Greek?? Well the first parts of the New Testament to be written were some of Paul’s letters, starting in the 50’s AD. These were followed by the Gospels, between roughly 70 and 100 AD, along with epistles from Paul and others. As for their inclusion in the eventual Bible, it’s widely accepted that by the end of the 2nd century AD, Paul’s letters and the four Gospels were all considered Canonical, while other books, such as Revelation and Hebrews, would take longer to be included. The earliest list we have of the 27 books of the New Testament comes from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD. Criteria for canonical inclusion of New Testament were fairly similar to those used to determine the Old Testament books. They included apostolicity, which is a book’s connection back to someone who either was an apostle or knew firsthand an Apostle of Jesus. Other criteria included that the book taught orthodoxy, or true doctrine, was considered to be Divinely-inspired, and finally that the work was widely accepted amongst the various churches and early Christian communities. I share this information so that you know the 66 books of the Bible were not assembled randomly, but with painstaking care, and according to a specific set of instructions.

 

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It is interesting too, just for a moment, to look at the Gospels specifically. These four books really are the heart of the New Testament, and at the very center of the foundation of the Christian faith, since they recount the life of Christ. But sometimes critics will charge that the Gospels were written long after the time of Christ, thus allowing their message to become distorted and inaccurate. Bart Ehrman is a noted author, and scholar of the New Testament, but he is not a practicing Christian, and has made a name for himself as a religious skeptic. Now the great Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis is famous for arguing that you have only three options for considering who Jesus is, based on the Biblical evidence: He is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. But Bart Ehrman adds a fourth possible option to this list—legend. In other words, 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 could plausibly 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 space 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. Thus 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’ life still would have been living. Also, the chart I have posted above this paragraph 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, Tacitus, and many other famous writers from antiquity.

Finally, as regards this whole matter of the historical reliability and accuracy of Scripture, I’d like to share a brief anecdote. Horizons International is a ministry located in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. As the name implies, they focus on reaching out to international students, specifically those coming from a Muslim background. The founder of Horizons is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon before converting to Christianity. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so sometimes when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, that is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them something like this: “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! As I’ve tried to show through a few historical examples, God’s Word has been preserved through the ages and is historically reliable.

 

 

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But why as Christians, and maybe especially as Protestants, would we say that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christian practice, and the final source we turn to in order to direct our life and faith as believers? Well to answer this question let’s go back in history a few centuries, to the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The man most associated with this movement to correct some of the major abuses in Catholicism was Martin Luther, that great German theologian and writer. Luther had actually trained originally to be a priest, and one of the things that troubled him about the Catholicism of his day was the extent to which it was endorsing practices which Luther did not feel had any real Scriptural basis. In 1521, Luther, whose writings attacking the church’s corruption were starting to garner increasing controversy and gather 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. This is why one of the primary truths that emerged from the Protestant Reformation is the term Sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture alone.”

 

And in various places, the Bible itself attests to its own authority as our guide for life. Psalm 119, the longest of all Psalms, is essentially 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 powerfully 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 God’s Word, 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.”

 

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But how are we to go about understanding and interpreting the message of the Bible? Can’t Scripture often be challenging, complex, and hard to fully understand? After all, it was written thousands of years ago, in a time and culture very different from ours today. Now all of that is true, but at the same time, as Christians, we hold the Bible dear precisely because we believe that everyone, and not just the specially-trained person, can understand and apply Scriptural truth in their lives. Another one of the foundational principles that emerged during the Protestant Reformation from Luther and his followers is the idea of the “Priesthood of the Believer.” This is the concept that all Christians, and not just the clergy, have direct access to God through their prayers and the power of the Holy Spirit. This access also includes the ability to interpret Scripture. Now of course it can be helpful to have training to better understand the Bible, and in fact what I want to talk about now are some of the aids that we have at our disposal to better understand Scripture and its meaning. The most important one perhaps, is the power of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to us by Jesus in John 16:13—“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will speak not on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will tell you things to come.”

 

 

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John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church in England in the 1700s, and later, his followers compiled a methodology based on his ideas known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The idea is that there are four norms or sources for guiding our Christian theology and practice. They are Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Scripture is the most important of these four, in keeping with the teaching of earlier theologians like Luther. But the other three categories can all aid us in the interpretation of Scripture. So our God-given reason and common sense can help us understand many Biblical passages, as can tradition—borrowing from the work and wisdom of the many great Christian thinkers and teachers down through the ages. Finally experience, that is our own personal relationship with God, and what we have learned from this, can be an aid in our better understanding the message of the Bible. Now obviously Biblical interpretation is not always so simple a matter. After all, that’s part of what I went to seminary to do—to learn how to better interpret Scripture. And if you wanted to, you could go and study Biblical Hebrew, and Koine Greek, so that you could read the Biblical texts in their original languages. All that would help.

 

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But we should be careful of assuming that the Bible is so complex and mysterious in its interpretation, because very often, the message of Scripture is perfectly clear, but we simply don’t want to follow what it says. I love a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Danish theologian, on Biblical interpretation. He said this: “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?” To finish this thought—I want to return briefly to Martin Luther. His guiding rubric, and philosophy for his entire approach to Biblical interpretation was actually quite simple, and for me, pretty hard to improve upon: “What promotes Christ.”

 

 

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Lastly, I want to talk just for a moment about how you can begin to apply Biblical truth and authority into your Christian life. A lot of people say they want to live their life according to Biblical principles, but doing this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.  Gary Player is one of the most famous and successful golfers in history. The South African, known as “The Black Knight”, won nine major championships over the course of his long career, and in total has won 165 tournaments. But what was the secret to his becoming successful and then maintaining that success over such a long period of time? Well one time, so the story goes Gary Player was hitting balls off the practice tee one morning, and the first ball he hit went 280 yards straight as a bullet.  A man watching him in the gallery said, ‘Man, I’d give anything to be able to hit a golf ball like you.’  Gary walked over to the guy and said, ‘No, you wouldn’t.’  The guy said, ‘Yes, I would.  I’d give anything to hit like that,’ Gary said, ‘No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be willing to do what it takes. You have to rise early in the morning and hit five hundred balls until your hands bleed.  Then you stop, tape your hands, and hit five hundred more balls.  The next morning you’re out there again with hands so raw you can barely hold your club, but you do it all over again.  If you do that through enough years of pain, then you can hit a ball like that.”

 

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Well it’s really the same with your spiritual life. There are no shortcuts—you have to develop some good habits, and engage in some spiritual disciplines if you really want to learn and apply Biblical truth to your life. First, you have to commit yourself to reading the Bible on a regular basis, preferably every day, during a quiet time. And not just reading through casually, but really studying, and pondering the truths contained therein. Psalm 1 says “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he mediates day and night.” Then Psalm 46:10 commands: “Be still, and know that I am God.” So we all need to be able to find a time and space where if even for just a few minutes, we can devote ourselves to studying and meditating upon God’s Word. And then I would also encourage you to think about engaging in Scripture memory. I posted about this not too long ago.  Over the last few months, I’ve been making more of an effort to pursue Scripture memory and it’s making a difference in my quiet time and in my spiritual life. There are many different systems to use for Scripture memory. A lot of the students at CU have a verse pack, where they keep index cards with their memory verses. I actually prefer to store my verses on my phone, just because it is always something I have with me. You might find another method you prefer. But I do strongly encourage you, even if it’s just one verse a month, or a few per semester, to start learning God’s Word and storing it into your heart. It will not only help you in your own walk with the Lord, but it will help you as you minister and witness to others. As Psalm 119:130 so eloquently states in regards to God’s Scriptures: “The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple”.

 

Let me close by saying this—for all of the evidence that I’ve tried to offer here, ultimately, accepting Biblical authority is going to come down to an individual act of faith on each person’s part. If someone is truly a skeptic about the claims and authority of Scripture, no amount of arguing by me or anyone else will persuade them. But I do believe that God can do amazing things, even to the heart of a skeptic, if they will begin to read and study the Scriptures with an open mind. But for those of you who are Christians, and who do accept the authority of the Bible, let me give you one final exhortation. If you are basing your Christian faith and practice on something besides the Bible, be careful! For almost any other source of authority you could find, including some of  those we mentioned like church tradition, your own reason and experience, our culture, the influence of friends or others…all of these things are subjective and subject to change. Scripture however has stood the test of time, and it is a sure and certain guide that will never let you down! In Matthew 24:35, Jesus vows: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Word of God is historically reliable, true, and eternal, and so I urge you to base your faith and your walk with the Lord upon nothing more, and nothing less. Amen.

 

Unlikely hymns

 

I grew up with traditional Southern Baptist worship music. My home church, First Baptist Montgomery, had a large and impressive sanctuary, whose exterior was modeled on the famous Duomo of Florence, while the interior featured an extensive array of stained glass. As befitting such a space for worship, the musical accompaniment at the church was dominated by a large organ. So during worship, it seemed only natural we would sing traditional hymns in the traditional way. The Baptist Hymnal, which I proudly keep a copy of even with me today, features a wide array of classic church music drawn from across the centuries, and from many different ecclesiastical and national backgrounds. For me personally, hymns such as “A mighty fortress is our God”, “Jesus shall reign”, “Fairest Lord Jesus”, “I’d rather have Jesus”, “Come thou Almighty King”, “O God our help in ages past” and many others still embody what would is my ideal and favorite worship experience. So I could definitely say that with my upbringing, I am mostly a traditionalist when it comes to church music, and my preferences still tend to run in that direction, even after years of serving in college ministry haha.

 

Of course through my work in campus ministry, I have become very familiar with contemporary worship music, and can appreciate and enjoy a variety of different artists in that genre. My first exposure to this music prompted a slightly different reaction though, back in the late 1990s. I can remember almost the exact moment I first encountered more contemporary church music. I was visiting my grandmother in Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham, and her church there, First Baptist Gardendale, had begun to adopt what today would be considered a “blended” style of music, combining traditional hymns with more contemporary worship songs and choruses. Initially to me though, the sight of a drummer, bassist, and guitarist in a worship service was almost comically jarring. I remember thinking to myself “this is a fad that will never last!” Haha—guess I was wrong with that prediction. My feelings at the time though were that the bass, drums, and guitar were the instruments of rock music, and so at first they seemed very incongruous alongside a piano or an organ. It turns out though that the incongruity I supposedly sensed was based on my own ignorance of the history of rock as a musical form. Because later as I studied more about the origins of this wonderful musical genre, and became a dedicated fan of many different rock bands, I realized increasingly that rock had some pretty deep religious roots. After all, rock had largely evolved out of the blues and country music, genres which in turn had connections back to African-American spirituals, and Gospel music, respectively. It’s not surprising then that such early pioneers of rock and roll as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis all grew up with strong connections to Gospel music. In fact even later after they had become better known for their rock recordings, these artists continued to perform and release Gospel material.

Of course a whole genre of rock music played by explicitly Christian artists eventually developed. But what is perhaps more surprising is the wide array of rock bands seemingly without any connection to the Christian world who’ve nonetheless decided to explore spiritual themes in some of their songs. The cliché of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” would seem to hold true for much of what was written by many of these groups, and yet for whatever reason, they have also at times found themselves drawn towards God. I want to share a few notable examples of what might be termed “unlikely hymns”, from the golden era of rock and roll in the 1960’s and 70’s. Then I’ll discuss some reasons as to why even secular bands might have been drawn towards the spiritual, and try to tie this back to a Scriptural basis.

 

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During the Sixties, The Byrds epitomized the West Coast folk sound, and then later became known also for a pioneering single “Eight Miles High” released in 1966, which was considered a herald of the “psychedelic” era. But as the years progressed, and especially as they became more influenced by country music, The Byrds recorded two covers of songs with an explicitly Christian message, “The Christian Life” and “Jesus is just alright”, and thus helped expose these works, and their message, to a larger, more popular audience. The Velvet Underground meanwhile, were known as being among the most avant-garde of all 60’s groups. Coming from Manhattan, and being associated in their early days with celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol, the group fronted by the streetwise Lou Reed were known for exploring such hard-bitten themes as drug use, sado-masochism, paranoia, and prostitution in their songs. Yet their self-titled third album, released in 1969, contains the gentle ballad “Jesus.” The simple, almost child-like lyrics repeat throughout the song as follows: “Jesus, help me find my proper place/Jesus, help me find my proper place/Help me in my weakness/Cause I’m falling out of grace” Lou Reed, the song’s writer, came from a Jewish background, so we can only speculate the extent to which he was interested in Christianity, but there was another Jewish songwriter who came to prominence in the 1960’s, Canadian Leonard Cohen, who also revealed a lyrical fascination with Christ. Cohen’s 1967 tune “Suzanne” is ostensibly a love song, yet inserted into its midst are these meditations about Christ: “And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching from the lonely wooden tower/And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him/He said “All men are sailors then until the sea shall free them”/But he himself was broken long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” While Cohen later became involved in Zen Buddhism, another songwriter from a Jewish background, Bob Dylan, that famously irreverent Sixties troubadour, pioneer of the Singer-Songwriter movement actually went through a well-publicized Christian conversion during the late 1970s. Dylan seemingly became a Christ-follower, and released two albums during this “born-again” phase. Although he later would appear to distance himself somewhat from these songs, in 2009 he did release an album of traditional Christmas carols, Christmas in the Heart. Was this release merely a nod to the seasonal music market, or perhaps a reflection of some spiritual beliefs still held by the oft-inscrutable songwriter??

 

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Of course during the 1960’s no group was any bigger than The Beatles, the “Fab Four” from Liverpool, who nearly single-handedly redefined the course of rock history during their recording years from 1962-1970. For all of their prolific songwriting on a variety of different topics, The Beatles rarely addressed religious themes. But in an early 1965 interview, Paul McCartney noted: “We probably seem anti-religious because of the fact that none of us believe in God.” During the same discussion, John Lennon added a slight clarification: “We all feel roughly the same. We’re all agnostics.” A little over a year later, in the spring of 1966, Lennon would infamously proclaim to a British journalist while musing on the Beatles’ fame: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” In the summer of 1966, Lennon’s comments were published in American newspapers, igniting a firestorm of controversy, particularly over the “more popular than Jesus” assertion. Some irate American fans even went so far as to burn their Beatles records and memorabilia in protest. But even as early as the fall of 1966, Lennon was softening his stance on Christianity somewhat, leading many to believe that his true spiritual views were more nuanced than that one particular soundbite. In a magazine interview given while filming his part for the movie “How I won the war”, Lennon observed: “I believe Jesus was right, Buddha was right, and all of those people like that are right. They’re all saying the same thing– and I believe it. I believe what Jesus actually said– the basic things he laid down about love and goodness…If they took more interest in what Jesus — or any of them — said, if they did that, we’d all be there with them.” Then, on June 25, 1967, The Beatles performed one of their biggest and most enduring hits “All you need is love” while being filmed for the “One World” television special, the first live, internationally broadcast program. Commenting years later on the event for The Beatles Anthology documentary, George Harrison noted in regards to the group’s song choice for the broadcast: “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll sing “All You Need Is Love”, because it’s a subtle bit of PR for God.” Meanwhile, Lennon’s religious views continued to move away from his earlier statements. In an unreleased 1969 interview with the BBC he discussed his views of Christianity while a member of The Beatles–“It’s just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ. Now I wasn’t saying that was a good idea, ‘cos I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do. If the Beatles get on the side of Christ, which they always were, and let people know that, then maybe the churches won’t be full, but there’ll be a lot of Christians dancing in the dance halls. Whatever they celebrate, God and Christ, I don’t think it matters as long as they’re aware of Him and His message.” In that same interview, John Lennon went on to reveal that some of his supposed animosity towards Christianity was really based more on a distrust of organized religion, stemming back to a childhood incident at age 14, where he had been kicked out of an Anglican youth group for not being able to control his fits of laughter. “I wasn’t convinced of the vicar’s sincerity anyway. But I knew it was the house of God. So I went along for that and the atmosphere always made me feel emotional and religious or whatever you call it. Being thrown out of church for laughing was the end of the Church for me…I would have liked to have been married in a church but they wouldn’t marry divorcees? That’s pure hypocrisy.” Thus it would seem that for all their supposed irreverence and iconoclasm, The Beatles, and John Lennon in particular, might have been more interested in the Christian message than their reputation would warrant.

 

 

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Moving into another one of my favorite periods in rock history, the 1970’s, we find plenty of other examples of seemingly secular artists who made forays into Christian-themed work. Big Star was a power-pop group out of Memphis, Tennessee that achieved some limited success in the 1970’s and developed a cult-like following amongst music aficionados in later years. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a group raised in the South, and exposed to the Gospel and blues traditions in Memphis might include spiritual themes in a song, but few tunes in the rock canon have ever been more straightforwardly Christian than Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” Its lyrics could be straight out of a Christmas carol: “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/ Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born/Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born” Many other 70’s groups though were far less likely candidates for ever writing a Christian-themed song, and yet surprisingly enough we can find such works scattered across their catalogs. Roxy Music was a British “art-rock” band whose innovative visual imagery and use of an early synthesizer, helped them to stand out from many of their contemporaries. Roxy Music’s lead singer and songwriter Bryan Ferry penned the track “Psalm” for their 1973 LP Stranded, and true to its name, the track features overtly spiritual lyrics and imagery: “Believe in me once seemed a good line/Now belief in Jesus is faith more sublime/Head in the clouds, but I can’t see the Lord/Short of perfection, I’ll try to be good/ I’ll stand at His gate, I’ll wait for His sign/Then I’ll walk in His garden, when it’s my time/Drink from His cup, hush now don’t you cry/His quiet waters, will never, never run dry/Nearing death’s vale, He’s here by my side/He leads me to paradise, a mountain so high/Don’t be afraid, just treasure His word/Singing His praises, I know that I’ll be heard”

 

 

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Queen was one of the most successful and popular bands of the 1970’s, and their charismatic frontman, Freddie Mercury was as well known for his flamboyant and hedonistic personal life as for his vocal prowess. He died of AIDS in 1991, and would certainly never be confused for any type of spiritual spokesperson. Yet on the band’s self-titled debut, released in 1973, is Mercury’s rather earnest ballad, “Jesus.”—“Then came a man before His feet he fell/Unclean said the leper and rang his bell/Felt the palm of a hand touch his head/Go now, go now you’re a new man instead/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down/It all began with the three wise men/Followed a star took them to Bethlehem/And made it heard throughout the land/Born was a leader of man/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down to see the Lord Jesus” Mercury was of Indian origin, and had been raised in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, and yet these lyrics would seem to reveal at least some interest in the work and message of Christ. Or perhaps we could just write this off as a tribute to Mercury’s admiration for Gospel music, and an attempt to emulate that particular style and lyrical content. Even less likely candidates than Freddie Mercury to write anything that spoke favorably towards Christianity were the members of the British heavy metal group Black Sabbath, the band in which Ozzy Osbourne came to prominence as the vocalist. Their consistently dark stage and lyrical personas, did not preclude them however from including a track on their 1971 album Master of Reality that was entitled “After Forever.” And on this song, the band that had become the virtual poster-child for heavy metal excess turned their talents to a relatively serious endorsement of faith, and a rather strong critique of those who would disdain spiritual beliefs. “Have you ever thought about your soul can it be saved? Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead you just stay in your grave/Is God just a thought within your head or is he a part of you? Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?…Well I have seen the truth, yes I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways/And I’ll be prepared when you’re lonely and scared at the end of our days/Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say/If they knew you believed in God above? They should realize before they criticize/That God is the only way to love…Perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone/Open your eyes, just realize that He’s the one/The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate”

 

 

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But surely amongst the most surprising candidates to have ever penned a Christian-themed song would have been Alice Cooper. Born Vincent Furnier, this pioneer of “shock rock” became notorious to 1970’s audiences for his gory stage shows which included mock executions, live boa constrictors, chopped-up baby dolls, and all manner of other horrors, presided other by the gravelly-voiced Cooper, whose trademark snake-eye makeup gave him a particularly sinister appearance on stage. Yet in 1971, he penned “Second Coming” for the Alice Cooper band’s breakout third album “Love it to Death”. “I couldn’t tell, if the bells were getting louder/The songs they ring I finally recognize/I only know, hell is getting hotter, the Devil’s getting smarter all the time/And it would be nice to walk upon the water/To talk again to angels on my side/I just come back to show you, all my words are golden/So have no gods before me, I’m the light”

 

At times the lyrical hints can be very subtle, yet still telling. For example, Don McLean’s 1971 smash-hit “American Pie” has been played ad nauseum on radio from that day to this, and there have been numerous attempts to critically unravel the “message” of the song. Yet tucked away near the end of the tune is a Trinitarian reference, reflective perhaps of the fact that McLean grew up in a Christian household: “And the three men I admire most/The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the coast/The day the music died.” In some instances, an artist never released any Christian-themed music for much of their career, but then suddenly an album comes out which makes you wonder if they hadn’t been wrestling with some of these themes all along. Judas Priest was a hard-edged band out of Birmingham, England, that, along with Black Sabbath was considered one of the pioneering groups of the heavy metal genre in the 1970s. Their lead singer, Rob Halford, later became known in 1998 for being one of the first metal singers to come out as openly gay. As they watched Halford up on stage, dressed from head to toe in leather and studs, and often making his entrance on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, even his most avid fans would have perhaps had trouble believing that their hero was actually raised in a Christian home, prays every day, and credits a belief in God to helping him overcome his alcohol and drug addictions in the mid-1980s. In 2009, Halford released a Christmas album called Winter Songs that included faithful, if albeit heavy-metal-tinged renditions of traditional carols such as “O Holy Night”, “What Child is this?”, and “O Come all ye faithful”.

 

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And the list could go on. I could talk about rock groups in later decades that explored spiritual themes, from such well-known artists as U2, to bands on the more “indie” range of the musical spectrum, such as Belle and Sebastian. But now I’d like to discuss just briefly about why it is that Christ and His message have exerted such an endearing fascination even in the world of rock and roll, which ostensibly celebrates so many values that would be opposed to Biblical truths. Certainly there are Scriptural passages which suggest that all people, even those who’ve never been exposed directly to the Gospel, are still able to access some knowledge of God through the direct evidence of the world around them, as well the promptings of their own conscience. Such a viewpoint is called “natural theology” and is expressed well by Paul in Romans 1:18-20—“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because, what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” Now Paul, who is among the greatest missionaries and evangelists of all time, is certainly not saying that God’s presence and message are so obvious that they need no communication. Obviously he dedicated much of his life to the very specific endeavor of seeking to spread the Good News of Jesus. But it does seem that Paul believes everyone should be able to at least arrive at a basic knowledge of God from those natural proofs of divine existence which, in addition to the order and majesty of Creation, would also include the innate sense of morality that we possess, try though many may to suppress it. Paul makes a somewhat similar point during his famous address to the Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Here, speaking to a crowd full of intellectuals and skeptics, as well as those immersed in pagan polytheism, Paul surprisingly suggests that many in his audience might be closer to the one true God than they realize. First, he makes mention of the monument which he noticed while passing through the Areopagus: “For as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” Then, in Acts 17:26-8, Paul continues his theme that God is more a part of the Athenian culture and intellectual landscape than his hearers could conceive: “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring” By quoting from a Greek poet, Paul further demonstrates that this Athenian culture is perhaps more open to monotheism than would be previously imagined. I bring up these examples from Paul to underscore my point that our own Western culture remains more influenced by and open to spiritual, and even specifically Christian ideas than we too might imagine. Taking rock and roll as a quintessential cultural product of the West, and specifically America, this also holds true, as we have observed by examining a selection of spiritually-influenced lyrics from bands who are in no way identifiably “Christian”.

 

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Having mentioned natural theology, and the foundational need that humanity seems to have to acknowledge the Divine, across different cultures and time periods, I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider the innate power of music to evoke spiritual feelings. Certainly the Psalms are an example of this natural, and deep-seated connection between music and the spiritual. Although they are technically considered part of the Wisdom Literature genre in the Bible, they are really unique in comparison to any other section of Scripture. The Psalms address an incredible breadth of subjects and themes. In the simplest terms, we could refer to the Psalms as the “songbook” of Ancient Israel. These poetic compositions were sung, often to musical accompaniment, and would have been part of the Temple worship of ancient Judaism. They continue to be important in Jewish synagogue worship to this day, and from the earliest history of Christianity, psalms also featured in the liturgy and worship practices of the Church. While the Psalms were probably originally used mostly in a communal worship setting, many of them, especially some authored by David, have a very personal and individual perspective as well. The name of the book of Psalms in Hebrew is “Tehillim”, meaning “praises”, a fitting title since almost every Psalm contains words of praise to the Lord. The Greek word “Psalmoi”, from which we get the English title “Psalms” means “instrumental music”, again reflecting the fact that the Psalms were originally designed to be sung to musical accompaniment.

 

 

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The 150 Psalms are the “songbook of life” because they express so many universal human emotions, ranging from joy to despair, while at the same time, they always point us back to God as the author and guide of life. There are psalms of praise and thanksgiving, psalms of lament, imprecatory psalms (calling for judgment on the enemies of God), and psalms of confession—those seeking forgiveness for sins committed. In dealing with love and hatred, sorrow and forgiveness, as well as the pure joy of praising and exalting God—we could say that the Psalms first covered many of the genres and moods that are by now cliché to sing about in popular music, including rock and roll. Bono, lead singer of the legendary Irish rock band U2 is a practicing Christian, who has often addressed spiritual themes in his lyrics, although U2 have never been regarded as a purely “Christian” group in terms of their song subject matter. Back in 1999, he reflected about the Psalms, writing at length: “That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me — the blues. Man shouting at God — “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22). I hear echoes of this holy row when unholy blues man Robert Johnson howls, “There’s a hellhound on my trail,” or Van Morrison sings “sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Texas Alexander mimics the psalms in “Justice Blues”: “I cried Lord my father, Lord thy kingdom come. Send me back my woman, then thy will be done.” Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backsliding’ music; but by its very opposition, it flattered the subject of its perfect cousin, gospel. Abandonment, displacement is the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger: “How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?” (Psalm 89) or “Answer me when I call” (Psalm 5).”

 

Bono continues: “Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words but I wasn’t sure about the tunes — with the exception of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I remember them as droned and chanted rather than sung. Still, in an odd way, they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the open throat of Al Green and Stevie Wonder… Psalm 40 suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and replace the very strict laws of Moses (i.e. fulfill them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.”

I love these words from Bono, not only because U2 is one of my favorite rock bands, but also because I feel like his description of the Psalms so seamlessly explains how this spiritual “songbook” expresses so many of the themes that thousands later worked their way into the forerunner of rock, the blues, and then rock music itself. Furthermore, I believe that the honest emotion, and the raw “realness” which enables so many people to resonate with the Psalms, is also a major factor in attracting listeners to rock music. In 1971, giving an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, and reflecting back on the beginning of his fascination with rock music, John Lennon observed: “It gets through to you; it got through to me, the only thing to get through to me of all the things that were happening when I was fifteen. Rock & roll then was real; everything else was unreal. The thing about rock & roll, good rock & roll…is that it’s real, and realism gets through to you despite yourself. You recognize something in it which is true, like all true art.” The raw honesty of the emotions that rock music can evoke in its playing might not always drive the musicians or their audience towards spiritual matters and God, but certainly I’ve tried to show in this blog post that it’s also not so much of a stretch to see how rock and roll, for all of its notorious reputation as an art form, can also at times celebrate more elevated spiritual thoughts and emotions. We have also observed how the long lineage of musical forms which led to the emergence of rock, including blues, country music, and Gospel music, all could be said to originate in the Psalms. Music then seems to be one of the ways that God has provided for us to express that which cannot be expressed otherwise, to unburden our souls, and celebrate both sacred, and profane longings.

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That such a medium could lead people closer to God then is not really too surprising. It certainly proved to be the case for the aforementioned Alice Cooper. The notorious “shock rocker” of the 1970s, once said this about his musical outlook: “We were into fun, sex, death and money when everybody was into peace and love. We wanted to see what was next. It turned out we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation.” But despite such a nihilistic stance, Cooper had still maintained enough moral sensibility to write a song like “Second Coming”, whose lyrics I cited earlier in the post. And eventually, through the ravages of years of touring, and substance abuse, God reached even the supposedly hardened heart of Alice Cooper. He is now a born-again believer, a man who, when he is not touring, works with a faith-based organization he started called “The Solid Rock Foundation” to help at-risk youth through free musical training. Cooper reflected on his eventual conversion in a 2014: “So songs like ‘Second Coming’ and things like that were all pretty much always warning about Satan. Almost everything I wrote was ‘good and evil, don’t pick evil…You know, even when I wasn’t Christian I was saying that. You know, ‘God and the Devil, don’t pick the Devil, because it’s a bad idea… The very fact that He [God] cared enough about me to save my life about 20 times, you know, and help me survive a million different things to put me where I am now. And then the challenge I have now, being a Christian in the rock business. You know, He kind of put me in the philistines, the camp of the philistines, which is okay.” In the same interview, Cooper mused on the ways in which his life was transformed through putting his faith in Christ: “Well, before you are always self—you’re always self-centered. Everything is for you.  Your self is God. And we make lousy gods. Humans make lousy gods, I think. We need to let God be God and us be what we are. I think that’s what changes: the focus on who you’re serving. You’re not serving you. You’re serving Christ.” Finally, he addressed his struggle about whether to continue in his profession as a rock musician following his conversion: “God’s chipping away at your life all the time to try to make you more like Him. That’s what a Christian is, a person that’s being molded and shaped all their life …. I think the Lord expects you to do your best in His name. I had to struggle a long time about rock and roll. I realized it’s not really the music. It’s what’s being said with the music. So I think you have to be careful of what you’re writing, what you’re representing.”

 

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In that last quote, Cooper really gets at heart of why rock, like any other type of music, can be used to praise God as much as to distract or lead people away from Him. It’s not about the heavy drums, pounding bass, screaming electric guitars, or even the theatrical visual image portrayed by many rock performers. These are but the external trappings of the art form, although many critics have confused them for the essence of the message itself. Instead, it’s all about what the musician, or band has to say. And hopefully as this post has demonstrated, even some of the most worldly and irreligious rock groups have at times felt compelled to explore spiritual themes with their words. In Matthew 16:13-15, Jesus asks His disciples about His identity—first from the standpoint of outside opinions, but then from within the group itself. “He asked His disciples saying ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” This question of Christ’s echoes down through the centuries, and it would seem, compels even those who are seemingly far from God to ponder the life, work, and message of Christ. Sure, one could dismiss these spiritual songs as anomalies in an otherwise thoroughly secular catalog for many of these artists. Perhaps they were written even from a tongue-in-cheek, or ironic standpoint, simply playing with the audience’s expectations by departing from the usual “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” stereotype. Or, just possibly, they were written from a real, if perhaps even on some level subconscious desire by these artists to provide a response to the question of Jesus in Matthew 16:15. Certainly for me, when I hear these unlikely hymns, it’s a reminder to be on the lookout for those around me who might be searching for God, even those very ones who seem furthest from Him.

Lessons from St. Paul–Living in the State of Grace

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At my home church in Colorado, East Boulder Baptist, I recently had the chance to preach on a fascinating passage from Romans that helps shed some light on how we are to approach living the Christian life. Working in campus ministry at CU-Boulder, one of my main focuses is in the area of discipleship. It really represents the proverbial “other side of the coin” in relation to evangelism. Because after someone has heard the good news of the Gospel and made a decision to follow Christ, the real process of the Christian life begins—which is living out a personal relationship with Christ on a daily basis. In Romans 6:15-23, Paul talks about how the Christian should live in light of the law on one hand, and the freedom that we have in Christ on the other. This is such an important passage, and so rich in theological detail, but it’s not just of historical interest. Because I believe that today in 2016, as much as in the 1st century AD when Paul was writing, Christians are still struggling to not fall into the ditches on either side of the road when it comes to how they should embody their faith. On one side, there exists legalism, where people get confused into thinking that if they just do the right things, they can earn God’s favor and be a good Christian through sheer determination and force of will. This is a profound misunderstanding of what it means to trust in and follow Jesus. Paul himself was once embroiled in this type of thinking, as he reveals in Philippians 3:4-7. But then he gradually realized that the law, and adherence to its principles couldn’t save him. Yet on the opposite extreme, Paul is also dealing with people who say that since we’re Christians, and we’re no longer bound by the Old Testament laws, and so we can just do whatever we please. This is a heretical doctrine technically known as antinomianism, and it’s summed up in that first verse of the passage. Romans 6:15—“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!”

 

            So here is the challenge that Paul faces in writing this letter for the church’s instruction, and that we as Christians still face today. How can we understand that we don’t have to judge ourselves according to our works, or by how well our actions correlate to a standard of ethics and morality—of religious rules?? That’s trying to earn God’s favor through human efforts—and that’s the essence of legalism. A few months back, I had the opportunity to participate in a simulcast of David Platt’s “Secret Church” at East Boulder Baptist. It proved to be a wonderful and informative evening, and the title of Platt’s talk was “A Global Gospel in a world of religions.” He discussed the principal belief systems around the world other than Christianity, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism. And what all of these systems of belief have in common is that they to some extent or another all teach a means of achieving spiritual favor through human effort—in effect what we might call various forms of legalism.

 

But if we strive to avoid legalism, on the other hand, how can we also understand that freedom from the law doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t count, or isn’t to be taken seriously?? That’s the problem with antinomianism. And the answer to how to navigate down that faith road and not end up in either ditch is to embrace the love and grace that Christ offers us. To live the Christian life is to enter into a love relationship with our Savior Jesus. And that love Christ offers, and the grace to cover our sins and shortcomings overrides a legalistic, fear-based view of Christianity that’s all about rules and the penalties that come from breaking them. Then at the same time, a love for Christ is stronger than any reckless desires which might lead us to abuse our freedom from the law and needlessly indulge in sin. Between the two extremes then of legalism, and an overly-casual attitude towards sin—I believe that love can guide us safely. When I think of the power of love to affect change, I’m reminded of a timeless children’s story I first read ages ago. It’s one of Aesop’s fables–“The North Wind and the Sun.” The mighty North Wind decides to challenge the Sun to a test of strength. Their object will be to compel a passing traveler to remove his cloak. The wind thinks this will be a fairly easy matter, and begins to blow with all its force, intending to rip the coat right off the traveler’s back. But of course the harder the gusts come, the more the traveler hangs on to his coat, and grips it tight to his body. Then it’s the Sun’s turn, and after a few minutes of its loving, gentle warmth, the traveler happily removes his cloak. That fable illustrates the power of love to win out over any other type of force. The power of Christ’s love and grace can ultimately help safeguard against either legalism or antinomianism.

 

 

But to better understand the dangers of both these positions, let’s proceed further into the passage. Verse 16 reveals a somewhat unflattering truth about the human condition, but one that is accurate nonetheless. Because even as Americans, living in an open, democratic society, with all of the civil rights and liberties that we enjoy—we are still all slaves. Listen to Romans 6:16—“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?” In other words, we will all serve something—either our sinful desires, or the righteous model that’s offered to us through Christ. Now I know that’s not what anyone really wishes to hear, or believe about themselves. It was the same way with the Israelites—they were incredulous, and indignant even to say the least when Jesus, speaking in John 8, tells them much the same thing. John 8:35—“Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.”

So the question at hand here is who do you wish to serve?? Martin Luther, the great German theologian, and father of the Protestant Reformation envisioned it this way—he talked about all humans being like horses that would be ridden either by God or the devil. So in Luther’s estimation we are each made to serve someone. Now there are some people who have a little stronger conception of human free will. Such persons might say—“I make my own choices”, whereas the image of a slave would seem to suggest someone who doesn’t have much agency or decision-making ability. But consider this little poem from R. Lee Sharpe. It’s one that I quite like—since I first heard it quoted by my pastor back in Alabama several years ago. “Isn’t it strange how princes and kings, and clowns that caper in sawdust rings, and common people, like you and me, are builders for eternity? Each is given a list of rules; a shapeless mass; a bag of tools. And each must fashion, ere life is flown, a stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.” Sharpe’s brief poem captures essentially the same idea that Luther was trying to convey, just from a somewhat different viewpoint. Because even if we focus more on the idea of our ability to choose and exercise our free will, we still have to make decisions about what we are going to value and seek to accomplish with the limited time we are allotted in this life. And if we end up serving our own selfish, and sinful desires, there’s a good chance that our life’s legacy will prove to be more of a stumbling block for those who come after. However, if we live to serve God, and then by extension others, we can hope that our legacy may be an encouragement, a stepping stone to those who’ll follow. So back to Paul’s central question—will we be slaves to sin, or to righteousness?? Next, he’s going to show us what the results of each decision look like.

 

Romans 6:19-21 illustrates the final consequences of being slaves to sin. Paul doesn’t mince words here, but instead wants to clearly demonstrate what our patterns of sin will culminate in if they remain unchecked. Romans 6:21—“What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.” Then consider James 1:14-15, which in equally stark terms lays out the result if we follow through with what might be termed the “life-cycle” of sin. “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” Sin ultimately leads to death—you really can’t put it in much simpler terms, can you?? That noted Evangelical pastor, writer, and theologian, Francis Schaeffer once observed: “Every man has built a roof over his head to shield himself at the point of tension…The Christian lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is to beat upon him. When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is…He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm of what is.” Sin, and its consequences cannot be sugar-coated. We have to understand what the ugly end result, the fearful final product will be if we give ourselves over to sinfulness, and become its slaves. So Schaeffer’s efforts to “remove people’s roofs” is just another attempt to get them to see the flaws and potential problems in their non-Christian worldviews. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work The Screwtape Letters gives us an ingenious series of dialogues between two devils in hell as they try to tempt a man termed “the patient” towards his own damnation. There’s a great line in there which pretty much sums up how Satan attempts to ensnare us in sin, and what the end result is: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula…To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart”

 

Well now that we have a bleak picture of what it means to be a slave to sin, let’s turn to the positive kind of slavery that Paul wants us to embrace—to be a slave to righteousness. This is described in the passage in verses 17 and 18. Now first of all, we must understand that there is only one way to be set free from the power of sin. We’ve just discussed how destructive sin can be, how it leads ultimately to death, and so how can we hope to escape its power? We can’t do it through the law alone—you can read through the whole narrative of the Old Testament and witness how the Children of Israel tried that approach and failed. Or look at the life of Paul himself—a man who was profoundly obedient to the law, and yet found that it couldn’t change his heart. We can’t escape sin through our own determination or will-power. Indeed many of us could probably identify with the profound frustration that Paul expressed in Romans 7:19—“For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice.” Relying on the law and our own human efforts to save us from sin is the essence of the problem with legalism, as we’ve already discussed. It is a flaw that many other world religions possess too. Yet on the other hand, some people try to escape sin by pretending in essence that it doesn’t really exist. They profess a kind of sloppy idealism, where if we just do whatever we want, and wish all other problems away, then we don’t have to face consequences, and live by any particular standards. We’ve already given a name to this behavior—antinomianism. To put it in slightly less theological, and more contemporary terms, these are the kind of people who might cite the phrase “all you need is love” in response to all the world’s problems. As a big of a Beatles fan as I am, I have to say that this quote from one of their most famous songs isn’t quite sufficient. Yes, we do need love—but what kind of love? And as unpopular as it is to say, love is meaningless if it’s directed indiscriminately towards everything—if it is not accompanied by standards, even by judgment. We love the idea of standing up for human rights, but that then means we should hate other things, like human trafficking. Or we can love a friend, but hate the bad choices they are making, the addictions that are ruining their lives. But in a world where people have rejected the idea of universal or absolute standards, how can we then turn around and judge certain practices or customs? To what authority will we appeal to? If all we need is love—to whose standard and idea of love are we turning towards?

 

I say all this to bring us to a clear conclusion—only through the love, and atoning work of Christ, and Christ alone, can we be saved from the power of sin.  We simply cannot do it by ourselves!! Then, as Paul says in Romans 6:18—“Having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” So how do we pursue such a life of righteousness? Well maybe a story, a literary anecdote, will help to illustrate for us. O. Henry was perhaps the greatest short story writer in American literature, and he became particularly known for crafting stories with unexpected, surprise endings. One of his finest, which I still remember from the time I first came across it as a high school student, was entitled “A Retrieved Reformation”, first published in 1903. It concerns the story of one Jimmy Valentine who at the beginning of the narrative, is just about to be released from prison via a special pardon from the governor. The warden suggests that he try to live a straight life from here on out, but hardly has he been released from the penitentiary than Valentine resumes his old habits as a thief, one who specializes in safe-cracking to be exact.  He pulls of a few heists but then, as in many a good story, love intervenes. Jimmy falls in love with a girl in the small town of Elmore, Arkansas, and he’s motivated to begin pursuing the honest life of a shoe salesman. His love, Annabelle, is ironically enough the daughter of the town’s banker. Anyways, Jimmy changes his name to Ralph Spencer, as symbolic of this new start in life. And he writes a letter to an old friend, planning to give away his old set of custom made burglar’s tools to signify a clean break with his criminal past. In the letter he says: I want to make you a present of my kit of tools. I know you’ll be glad to get them—you couldn’t duplicate the lot for a thousand dollars. Say, Billy, I’ve quit the old business—a year ago. I’ve got a nice store. I’m making an honest living, and I’m going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It’s the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn’t touch a dollar of another man’s money now for a million. After I get married I’m going to sell out and go West, where there won’t be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me. I tell you, Billy, she’s an angel. She believes in me; and I wouldn’t do another crooked thing for the whole world.” Now so far so good—it seems that the newly christened Ralph Spencer truly is on his way to a second chance in life. But our pasts have a way of pursuing and even overtaking us, and so it is with Ralph Spencer. For you see there is a detective named Ben Price, who helped to arrest the former Jimmy Valentine, and has been back on his trail since. He’s hoping this time to put Valentine away for a good, long sentence.

 

Right after Ralph writes the letter, planning to give away his burglary tools, he and Annabelle are visiting her father’s bank, and at that very moment, Ben Price has arrived in town, and is simply waiting for the most opportune time to arrest the real Jimmy Valentine, alias Ralph Spencer. Then, one of Annabelle’s young nieces is accidentally locked into the big bank vault. The combination hasn’t been set yet, and no one can open it. No one, that is, but Ralph Spencer. He knows what is at stake. He realizes fully that if he opens the safe to rescue the young girl, with Ben Price there watching, he will fully reveal the truth—that Ralph Spencer is nothing more than Jimmy Valentine, the former bank robber. Everything, his new life, his impending marriage to Annabelle, his attempt at repentance and reformation, will be over. Yet he doesn’t hesitate. Using the set of tools he was preparing to give away, Ralph cracks the safe in a matter of minutes to rescue the young girl. He then turns to the figure of Ben Price, who’s been looming in the bank doorway the whole time, watching, and prepares to turn himself in. But then, Ben looks him over and simply announces “Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggy’s waiting for you, ain’t it?” In a remarkable turn of events, Jimmy has been forgiven by this man who’d come to arrest him. Because Ben Price sees through the selfless act of Jimmy cracking the safe to save the girl that this man really has changed, and has been redeemed. Just as the love of a woman helps to redeem Jimmy Valentine from a life of crime, we all have the opportunity to also be redeemed by love—but by the infinitely greater love of God. If we can experience freedom from sin, and the promise of eternal life through the sacrifice made by Christ, then that should provide all of the motivation, all of the encouragement we need to pursue a life of obedient service to righteousness, rather than to our sinful desires.

The last verse in our passage, Romans 6:23, is effectively a summary of everything we’ve already talked about. It lays out the stark truth about sin, but then offers us the unimaginable hope that comes through the gift of salvation in Christ. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Each of us today has this priceless opportunity to experience life in the “State of Grace.” We don’t have to live under the pressure of a legalistic, performance-driven vision of trying to please God with our actions. We also can avoid the fallacy of simply indulging in sinfulness, which is a destructive path that will ultimately lead us to death. Now is maintaining this balance always going to be easy?? Of course not, but that is why we have the Holy Spirit living in us, to guide, to teach, and to mold us ever more into a pattern of Christ-likeness. That is why we have Christian communities, churches, where we can hold one another accountable, and encourage each other in this pilgrimage of faith. And that’s why we have God’s Word, to store away in our hearts, so that we may live according to its principles. We should all strive to seek after the model presented to us by Christ in Matthew 20:27-28. Here Jesus says “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The Word of God tells us plainly that we will serve something—either our sinful natures, or the way of righteousness as exemplified by Christ. So let us pursue lives that are oriented to the love and service of God and others. God has served us—so we should each also take up that role. And in doing so, we can find the same joy and purpose as Paul by pursuing the path of Christlikeness no longer as slaves to sin, but as faithful servants in obedience to righteousness. Amen!