Saturday, April 27, 2013

Love Edifies

In my college years, I was part of a small group of students who were intense in our devotion to God and our desire to grow in our faith. At one point, I was attending five Bible studies a week. I just couldn't get enough.

Even now, I look back on that period of my Christian journey with such warmth and gratitude. The relationships I formed have a kind of "eternal" quality. Even when I haven't seen someone from that group for many years, if we happen to see each other, we share an instant bond.

But there was one aspect of my attitude from that time that I am glad to leave in the past. It was a kind of "holier-than-thou" attitude, a sectarianism that gave me a sense of spiritual superiority and that kept me from being able to enjoy fellowship with the rest of the big "C" Church. I was sure I knew the "truth" and that nobody else had it quite the way I did.

If I happened to visit a church, I would definitely not enjoy myself. Nor would I experience God's presence. I was too busy criticizing everything that went on. To quote Doc Holliday from the movie, Tombstone, "My hypocrisy [knew] no bounds." I was busy pointing out all the specks in the eyes of everyone else, while I sat there with a plank sticking out of mine. It became impossible for me to last very long at one church without collapsing under the weight of my own lumberyard headgear.

Eventually, after living away from church life in general, we found our way to the Anaheim Vineyard. I am grateful to my former pastor, architect of the Vineyard movement, John Wimber. In one of the first messages I remember, he helped me to understand something very simple: God loves all believers and he simply calls us to love everyone whom He loves.

This is the meaning of Paul's statement: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8: 1b). In discussing the controversial and divisive subject of eating meat offered to idols, Paul frames the basis for all of his ethics. If you are simply motivated by a sense of superior knowledge, you will feel good about yourself, but the church will not be benefited. Instead, ethical action should be primarily based on love, which builds up the church. This is why Paul has decided to refrain from any activity that might cause a weaker brother to stumble. (vs. 13)

Jesus prays for the church that we would experience just such love: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17: 23).

Put simply: We are called to love everyone God loves. If God loves them, it's good enough for me.

Thus, Jesus' new commandment given to the disciples in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. "A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all [people] know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13: 34-35).

I am grateful to be planting a church in a city with a wonderfully united group of churches. Eleven of us, all pastors, were recently able to get away for a 24-hour retreat. We shared our lives and prayed for one another. That was followed recently by a united worship event near Easter. Thirteen churches were represented. Each pastor introduced and led prayer for another pastor. The love for one another was evident.

The picture of heaven that we are given in Revelation is dominated by an incredible unity. People from "every nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev. 7: 9) are gathered around the throne to worship God together. Unity is a sign of the Kingdom of God.

Why not try something yourself? Think about someone you might disagree with or you might be very different from or who rattles your sensibilities. Then ask yourself this question: "Does God love them?" And if the answer is "Yes," and it is hard to think of a time when it would be otherwise, then make the decision to love them too. Don't you think that would go a long way to sowing peace among us?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Good and Evil

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, for conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Hitler committed suicide on April 30 and seven days later, Germany surrendered.

Bonhoeffer, one of the brightest pastoral theologians of 20th century Germany, was a committed pacifist. But he reasoned: "If I see a madman driving a car into a crowd of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver."

In so many ways, the kind of moral clarity demonstrated by Bonhoeffer has been driven from our post-modern culture. It takes horrendous acts, like 9/11, or the Boston Marathon bombings, to remind us that there really is such a thing as good and evil.

Isaiah says: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isa. 5: 20).

Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you would be hard-pressed to find the word "evil" in the New York Times or on ABC World News Tonight. But there was a marked increase in the use of this word following those tragedies. There seemed to be no other way to discuss such horrific devastation that was intentionally inflicted on innocents.

Yet our post-modern worldview seems intent on finding meaning in relativism. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." "You can't really judge someone else without understanding their motivation." "They must have been abused as a child." We cannot comprehend that something might be evil, even if there are also causal factors.

And so, there seems to be a rush to find a motivation that would explain how someone could justify such abhorrent behavior. "Maybe they are part of an oppressed group."

But in order to be a moral people, we must accept the reality of good and evil. This only happens if we believe in an ultimate source of what is good: God Himself. Without understanding that there is a God and that He is Good, we will continue to devolve into moral relativism. In that world, we will stop using the word "evil." But at what cost?

"For, 'Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.'" (1 Pet. 3: 10-12).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Trinity

One of the most difficult points of Christian doctrine to wrap one's head around is the Trinity. Growing up as a good Presbyterian kid, I accepted that there was one God, and three persons. Yet, how that could possibly be seemed impossible to explain.

Sunday school teachers would use various "analogies": an egg has a shell, white and yolk, yet is one egg; water can exist as solid, liquid and gas, yet is all water; a person can be a father, a son and a husband, yet be one man.

Such analogies all have weaknesses. They either emphasize the one-ness so much that the three-ness is lost. Or they emphasize the three-ness so much that the one-ness is lost. This was the problem that the early church theologians encountered as they grappled with the problem.

But you might ask, why is it even a problem? Why even posit such a theological Gordian's knot? The word "trinity" does not appear in the Bible, but was first coined by Tertullian in the early third century. Isn't this an example of the corruption of early church beliefs?

We can blame the Bible for this controversy. The New Testament begins with an incredible scene: Jesus is being baptized and, coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and the Father speaks from heaven, "This is my Son, whom I love: with him I am well pleased" ( Matt: 3: 16-17). Matthew's Gospel ends with Jesus commanding believers to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28: 19).

Actually, if you study the early development of church theology, the two issues that occupied a lot of intense debate were somewhat interrelated: The Christological and the Trinitarian debates. Both of these debates were attempts to understand the biblical witness. Scripture treated Jesus as a man, yet he was worshiped as God. And God was presented as One, yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all presented as God, equal to one another, while retaining their distinctiveness.

The first debate issue can be stated thus: "What was the nature of Jesus' relationship to God?" The early counsels ended up giving us the boundaries of orthodoxy, called the "hypostatic union," but not necessarily how it works. "When you teach about Jesus' humanity, you cannot forget his full divinity. When you teach about his divinity, you cannot lose his full humanity. Jesus Christ is one substance with two natures."

The Trinitarian issue can be stated thus: "What is the relationship between Father/Son/Spirit and God?" The early counsels ended up giving the boundaries of orthodoxy in a similar way. "When you talk about the three-ness of God, you cannot lose the one-ness. When you teach about the one-ness of God, you can't lose the distinction of the three-ness. God is one substance, yet has three natures (which we translate "persons")."

I recently heard a great YouTube explanation of the Trinity by Ravi Zacharias to a Mormon audience (see below). He quotes C. S. Lewis (who was probably inspired by Augustine) in using the analogy of love as a strong philosophical argument for the NECESSITY of the doctrine of the Trinity. Let me summarize the argument:

1. Humanity demonstrates love for others as part of our nature. How else to explain why people would give up their own safety to reach out to others in need?

2. Love itself demonstrates an inherent relational element in the created. There must be a relationship between the one who loves and the one who is loved. And you could also posit that the love itself is a necessary third element.

3. "God is love" (1 John 4: 8 & 16). For God, in his eternal existence, to be love, all the necessary elements for love must be inherent in his very nature. Thus relationship is inherent in the "Godhead." And love is triadic by nature. A radical monism cannot explain how "God is love" can be true apart from Creation. A radical monism cannot explain how loving creatures, created in His image, must live in loving community to fully reflect the imago dei.

Take a moment to watch this video. It will be worth the time.

Ravi Zacharias on The Trinity

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reviewing "The Bible" Mini-Series

I am a total fan of Middle Earth--a kind of Lord of the Rings nerd. I first read the books in 6th grade and have read them many times since. I lost count at 25 times many years ago. I just read them again this last year.

So, when Peter Jackson's version of The Fellowship of the Ring came out about 12 years ago, I rushed to see it. My wife asked if I liked it. "I think it was a good movie, but I'm not sure if I like it yet," I answered. You see, I knew the books so well that I could not yet enjoy the movie. The medium of film imposes certain limitations, but also certain creative possibilities, that are different than the written word. So, it was not until the 4th viewing that I began to really enjoy the movie as well.

Still, I would like to know how Jackson would do "Tom Bombadil."

This is kind of where I'm at with The Bible, the five-part mini-series that aired on consecutive Sundays on the History Channel and culminating last weekend, on Easter Sunday.

I have read the Holy Bible many times. And I have a daily reading program that gets me through the entire Bible pretty much every year. So, I am immersed in God's Word. And since I am a pastor, I am also weekly writing messages (and this blog) in a way that tries to communicate God's message.

So, I have mixed feelings about the film that I viewed the last 5 weeks. Overall, I really enjoyed getting the grand sweep of God's story in a way that lifted me above the minutia of the "begets" and "thou shalt nots." God created this world and humankind with a purpose. We have an enemy who has tried to pull us away from God. But there is story after story of God's faithful love being expressed through people like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, David, Daniel, Jesus, Mary, Peter, Paul and John. And his plan culminated in the resurrection of Jesus so that He is now being proclaimed through his disciples.

I cried like a baby several times as the reality of certain Bible stories just washed over me. Abraham relieved that God's test was satisfied and he did not have to sacrifice Isaac. Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to Matthew and then calling him to follow. Jesus on the cross. Paul being healed by Ananias. John on the isle of Patmos.

And I was very happy to note that 10 million people watched the first episode, and that it had the potential to start conversations all over about what the Bible actually teaches. And perhaps the commercials for free Bible apps would result in actual Bible reading.

My complaints are really just a kind of knowing sadness. That some people will watch the movies and think that they now understand the Book. Angels are like ninja-assassins. The Ark of the Covenant just sat under a wispy pop-up tent in a way that Joshua could walk up to. That Jesus said "We're going to change the world." (That one is right next to "God helps those that help themselves" in 1st Hezekiah.)

I recently wrote a blog about "Reaching the Shallows and Going Deep" (2/27/13). There is a growing tendency to "scan" a topic in a way that gives us a shallow understanding of an issue. But if you really want to understand God and His ways, do you think He can be grasped in a shallow way? If He really is the God of the Universe, how can anyone be satisfied with the Cliff Notes?

Let us accept films for what they can do: capture a theme, convey a plot, touch us emotionally by helping us humanize the characters. But let us progress from there to a deeper understanding, which begins with a plan to read, study and meditate on the Word of God for ourselves. It is the Bible that was "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3: 16), not the script for a movie version. If we really want to hear from God, we must spend time reading His Word.

"I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Ps. 119: 11).

"Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path" (Ps. 119: 105).

"The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple;
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart;
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey; than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward" (Psalm 19: 7-11).