Asking the Right Questions…

“Who am I?” We’ve all asked ourselves that question at one time or another. It is a question of identity. Another question we all wrestle with in at some point in life is “What do I want to be when I grow up?” It’s a question of purpose, and we usually don’t ask it that way. We more often ask it, “What am I here for?” So, two existential questions of life are “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

The questions get complicated really quickly, though. Let me illustrate. Who is Lynn Malone? Well, you would likely say, “He is the pastor of The House Church Movement, or Vice President for Business Development at Peoples Bank.” That is a correct if incomplete answer to the questions. It only answers the second question (“What am I here for?”). The original question is still unanswered. I asked who he is, but our tendency is to answer what he does. See the difference? Tricky, right?

It’s About Relationships

We can’t answer the “who” question without talking about relationships. To understand who Lynn Malone is, you would have to tell me about his parents, siblings, wife, and children. Then I would have a context for his relationships and would understand to whom he belongs. This belonging would help me more clearly understand who he is. This helps me understand his identity better than simply knowing what he does.

And while we’re talking about his relationships, here’s another important one to consider—his relationship with Jesus. Telling me about his earthly relationships only answers half of the “who is he” question. I also need to know about his relationship with Jesus to fully understand his identity because when Jesus enters the picture, everything changes. Literally—everything changes. This is what the Apostle Paul is telling the Ephesians in the second half of chapter 4 of his letter to the church.

Paul shares the tangible and practical aspect of the believer’s new identity which has been changed from what it was to what it is, and that change comes as a result of the believer’s relationship with Jesus Christ.

New Clothes

An Old Coat

Paul illustrates this change by using an analogy of taking off an old coat and putting on a new one. I’ve still got an old coat from a former life hanging in my closet. I wore that old coat (it’s nearly forty years old) when I was a sheriff’s deputy in Jackson Parish. It’s an old coat, but it still fits pretty darn good. But, Paul says it represents the old man, and in Jesus, we take off the old man.

I’m a bit of a fashion conscious guy. So, I go out to the mall a few months ago and I walk through the entrance and I see this red coat hanging there. I like color. I like bright colors. So, I see this red coat and I think, “I’ve gotta’ have it.” It is my newest coat. Paul says the believer puts on a new coat. He says we are changed!

As a matter of fact, were we to read back up in Chapter 4:17, we’d hear Paul tell them, “Live no longer as the Gentiles do!” Actually, that’s a little strange because most of the Ephesian Christians were Gentiles. So, Paul is saying that’s the old coat you’ve taken off. It’s not where your primary identity lies anymore. It’s NOT who you are. Now, you are in Christ, and because you are in Christ, you are changed.

Do we understand the implication for us today? Rather than finding our identity in tribes or groups, we find our identity in Christ. We are no longer oppressor nor oppressed. Our relationship with Jesus powerfully influences our identities because in Jesus we are new! Not reformed, refurbished, nor remodeled—we are simply and totally new! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT) says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

In our old lives, we thought and acted a particular way and belonged (spiritually) to a particular entity. But when Jesus entered the picture, we became new. So as a result, we began to think and act a new way, and we belong to a new person—God. 

The New Questions

This means when Jesus enters our lives, He changes the answers to our two questions. In fact, we need this new set of questions to explore our new identities:

  • Who am I in Christ?
  • Who is Christ in me?

Our truest and most powerful identity is hidden in the answers to these questions. Who I am is now framed most strongly by the One to whom I belong. I am no longer who I was. I am now who He says I am. The more I understand Jesus, the more I understand me.

But that’s not all. When I ask who Christ is in me, I discover all Jesus has done to set me up for the strongest contribution to the world. Jesus not only radically alters my belonging, but His power and presence in me now physically affect what I am capable of. His presence awakens spiritual gifts that give me a strong contributing edge I never had before. His passion for people awakens my passions, which give me fuel to pursue what matters to Him.

What is it that matters to Him? That’s what Paul lays out in one of the lists that he likes to make. He talks about sin, and they were sins that the first century Ephesians were dealing with. I don’t have time to go into all of them, and even if I did, we’d be focusing on the wrong thing. As Paul unpacks the nature of the 1st century world, he saw people who sinned and didn’t care. Their hearts were hardened to the sin they were in. He saw people who were shameless in the living of their lives. They did what they wanted to do and they didn’t care who it affected. It was the epitome of self-centeredness. I will say, however, that Paul’s take on 1st century Ephesus sounds eerily similar to 21st century western culture. Let that be warning enough for us.

The Christian life is not checking off lists of do’s and don’ts. It is about being changed by the power of God in our lives through His Holy Spirit. What matters to God is sexual purity, and if it matters to God, it ought to matter to us. Truth, generosity, compassion, love and forgiveness. All these matter to God and so they become guiding principles in our lives. They become part and parcel of who we are. They answer the question—“Who am I in Christ?”

Yes, we’ve put on a new coat, but just because we’ve put on a new coat doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there to grab the old one and put it back on. Actually, that old one can be comfortable. Oh, and it still fits by the way! It’s easier to put the old coat on, too. Putting on the new coat is a conscious choice we must make every day. We put on the new coat every day by faith, by choosing to believe that we are who He says we are.

Sanctifying Grace

The Christian life is not a static life. It’s not a thermostat. Those are wonderful creations that we set it and forget it. Keeps things at a cool 68 degrees or a toasty 72 degrees. The Christian life is more like tending a fireplace. When I was growing up, my brothers and I tended to our grandfather, who was bedfast with arthritis. Every night in the late fall and winter, we had to stoke the fireplace with wood so it would keep the room warm during the night. In a fireplace you have to keep wood on the fire all day. That’s the Christian life. You have to keep working on it to keep the fire going. 

This is what I love about Wesleyan theology. Wesley understood that the Christian life is not static. That’s what sanctifying grace is all about—going on to perfection—moving further along the road of faith today than I was yesterday—growing more like Christ every day.

We must put on that new coat every day, and through prayer, bible study, fasting, fellowship, worship, meditation, communion, solitude…whenever we practice the spiritual disciplines we open ourselves to the power of God that is within each of us. Everything God wants us to be we already are on the inside in the person of Jesus Christ.

Augustine of Hippo

One of the great saints of the church, Augustine, grew up in a Christian home, but by his own admission, rejected the values of his godly mother and lived a sinful life. One of the many sinful pleasures in which he indulged was sexual sin. Augustine lived with a prostitute before his conversion, and legend has it that after his conversion he was walking down the street and this prostitute saw him. She shouted his name and he kept walking. He saw her, but kept his eyes straightforward and walked. She continued crying after him and ran after him. Finally, she said, “Augustine, it is I.” 

Augustine replied, “I know, but it is no longer I.” 

We are changed. It’s who we are in Jesus Christ, but we only know that if we ask the right questions.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus IS the Answer…

I was just a kid in the early 1970’s, but I remember vividly the music of Andre Crouch and The Disciples. I remember his music because I was part of a youth choir that often sang songs he wrote. One song in particular that I’ve been singing over and over lately is one entitled Jesus is the Answer. I’ve been singing it because I believe the Jesus IS the answer for the world today.

I also vividly remember many people who mocked Andre Crouch and the title to that song. Mockers asked, “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” I don’t know if there was a specific question Crouch was asking back in the 1970’s, but I know there is a specific question folks are asking today (and I’m asking it myself, too). With the racial and political brokenness facing us in this monster year 2020, the question is “How do we heal the division among us?”

Is it necessary for me to point out those areas of division? Probably not, but just in case you haven’t noticed, here are a few:

  • Ideologically–Capitalist vs. Socialists/Communists
  • Racially–White vs. Black, et. al.
  • Politically–Democrat vs. Republican, Trump vs. Never-Trump
  • Religiously–Traditionalist vs. Progressive

The list could go on. The divisions are tearing at the very fabric of our humanity. I am concerned about where the divisions will lead us unless we do the hard work of reconciling our differences, and learning again how to live with our diversity as a people and as a nation.

Of course, we aren’t the first generation to deal with divisions. The Apostle Paul’s generation had one, too. He writes about it to the church in Ephesus as an illustration—and a vivid one it is! In Ephesians 2, he calls it “dividing wall.” The wall to which Paul referred was a 3 1/2 foot high stone wall in the Temple that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews, and on that stone wall were signs that basically read, “Any foreigner who enters beyond this point is responsible for their ensuing death.” Paul uses the image to tell the church that in Christ that wall has been torn down. The division that existed between Jew and Gentile prior to Christ no longer existed. Through Jesus Christ, the two people are made one. They are united in Christ. That was their new identity.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for the first disciples, steeped as they were in 2000 years of history as God’s chosen people, to be told that they were to treat Gentiles the same as they would other Jews. It’s hard for us to imagine because we don’t have any real equivalent today. Here they were, a tiny, insignificant nation, and yet God had chosen them and revealed himself to them. They had Moses and the Prophets. God said they were a holy  nation, set apart for his service.

They actually had a somewhat arrogant view of their calling. William Barclay wrote that, “The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell.” He would also write, “It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother [at childbirth], for that would simply bring another Gentile into the world.” It was such that if a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the family had the funeral for the boy or the girl right then. No, Jews and Gentiles were not friends, and the Temple had a vivid image to remind them of that fact.

The chosen people had erected a wall, and Paul tells the Ephesians that the wall was the law, but Jesus abolished the wall through his death on the cross, and reconciled everything by the power of his blood to God, the Father. Now, everyone—Jew and Gentile—comes to God on the basis of faith in His Son. There is a key word there–reconciled.

So, what does Paul say is the result of this reconciliation in Christ? First, the Gentiles are no longer aliens and strangers, visitors without any legal rights, but rather citizens of God’s kingdom. They now enjoy all the privileges of being part of God’s people.

We are embroiled in a debate over the immigration laws in our nation, and I’m not going to give commentary one way or the other about that, but think for a moment the risks so many of those immigrants are willing to take to come to America. The benefits of being an American citizen are worth going to any lengths to obtain.

If being a citizen of America is so good, what about being a citizen of the Kingdom of God? But, it’s even better than that. Paul extends the analogy. He says, “You’ve now become members of God’s household.” You’re part of the family. Being part of a Kingdom is one thing, but being part of family of the King, is another. It means, in the context of this passage, that we’re now brothers and sisters of one another. No matter what our background, we’ve been brought into a new relationship of care, affection and support that may not characterize our earthly family, but does characterize the ideal family, the family of God.

Paul doesn’t leave the analogy there, though. He says Christ destroyed one thing to build another. He tore down a wall so he could build a house. He’s building a house on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with himself as the cornerstone. 

I’m reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel, where people tried to build a great tower to reach heaven, and God came down and confused their speech so they couldn’t communicate with each other. They all went off to their own parts of the earth. That was the beginning of the alienation of the races. But in Jesus, we see the process reversed. In Jesus, we see a new humanity, a new community being formed in unity with Christ as its foundation. As this new community is formed, it becomes the place where God dwells and where his people come together to worship him.

Don’t miss how important the corporate nature of the church is here. If we are ever tempted to have an individualistic view of Christianity, to think that God simply comes to dwell in each one of us as individuals and the church is just an add-on, think about what Paul says here. As we’re built together we become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit. As we’re united in Christ we become the new Temple of God, God’s dwelling place.

It’s important to note that Paul says we’re becoming a holy temple. That’s means we haven’t made it yet. God is still working to on us…individually and corporately. That’s part of Wesleyan theology…this whole idea that we are moving on toward perfection. It is part of the struggle we disciples have as we grapple with one another in this shifting culture. Where does God speak into the situations that divide us, and how does God speak into them?

Honestly, we start with what the Bible says. That’s what it means to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  They’re the human authors of most of the Bible. In other words, the church is built on God’s Word. That’s why we take it so seriously, and it’s why we don’t tamper with it. We know how dangerous it is to tamper with a building’s foundation. That’s why we should prick up our ears whenever we hear someone undermining the authority of God’s word, or questioning its authenticity. I’m certain the conversation won’t end there, but it at least must start there.

So, how are we to be united? I think there are implications for us personally and corporately. There is one word that I believe is key for our unity is Christ, and that word is forgiveness. Personally, we must begin to tear down the divisions we’ve built between ourselves and others by seeking and extending forgiveness as freely as God has extended it to us through Jesus Christ.

One of the ways we can do that is to acknowledge the person I’m listening to may know something I don’t know. Jordan Peterson has written a fantastic book entitled Twelve Rules for Life. Rule number nine says, “Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.” When we listen to others, we can begin to find places where reconciliation may come, and then we’ll discover our unity in Christ.

Corporately, there’s nothing that happens in the Church that should cause a breakdown in relationships…nothing! The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How can we invite others into a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ if we’re not reconciled to one another?

Internal harmony is one of the things architects look for when they’re sizing up the aesthetics of a building. But the harmony we’re talking about here is more than just aesthetic. We’re talking about a harmony where all the parts work together to bring the building to completion. We overcome this division, too, by seeking and extending forgiveness.

We are united in Christ. That which divides us fades into insignificance when we acknowledge ourselves as God’s sons and daughters. The worth of people different from ourselves can only be judged from God’s point of view. The color of our skin, the sound of our accent, the language we speak with most comfort have nothing to do with it. What matters is that Jesus Christ died to reconcile us to the father and to each other.

So, yes, I believe Jesus is the answer to the divisions in our culture. Unfortunately, the culture is turning further and further away from Jesus, but that’s an entirely different blog.

Until next time, keep looking up…

G.O.R.P….

I am not a hiker, but I have been hiking. So, I know very little about hiking except what I’ve read. I mention hiking, though, because hiking comes to mind when I think about God’s sanctifying grace (yeah, I know, you can’t figure out how my mind works–sometimes I can’t either).

SANCTIFICATION

I am thinking about God’s sanctifying grace because I’ve been studying again the core beliefs of the Evangelical Methodist Church. Here’s what the Church says about sanctification and living a holy life: “We believe in entire sanctification following regeneration, whereby the believer is cleansed from the pollution of sin, saved from its power, and enabled through grace, to love God with all his/her heart,” and “We believe that every Christian is expected to live a holy life, one that is truly Christian.”

Regeneration. Sanctification. Those are three dollar theological words that mean “a new life” and “a holy life” respectively. New life (regeneration) comes when we accept Jesus Christ, and a holy life (sanctification) is what grows out of following Christ. Now, you’re probably wondering, “What does any of that have to do with hiking?” I’m glad you asked.

Do you know what G.O.R.P is? G.O.R.P. is an acronym that stands for granola, oats, raisins and peanuts, or as others have said, “Good old raisins and peanuts.” For a hiker on a journey, gorp is a snack designed to keep the hiker from crashing on an extended trip. It’s hard to pack a lot of food on an extended hike, and g.o.r.p. is sufficient in calories to keep the hiker from experiencing what is known in the hiking world as the “bonk.” A bonk is when a hiker doesn’t take in enough calories and energy and capacity deteriorates, thus preventing one completing the journey. Good old raisins and peanuts is meant to sustain the traveler through the journey, to help the person stay fueled to finish the hike.

That, in a nutshell (no pun intended), is the essence of God’s sanctifying grace. Life is a journey, and all along the way God’s grace is available to us, in different ways at different stages of the journey. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, when energy and capacity wane…when life happens.

Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.

HOLINESS

Understand, living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a perfect life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. But, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, he also delivers us from the power of sin. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job in Romans 6 explaining this idea.

(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John’s brother, Charles Wesley, also does a masterful job capturing John’s teaching with this verse from Charles’ great hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
  He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
  His blood availed for me.

As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will deal with anger. We will deal with frustration. That is the life. In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser insticnts of our fallen nature. Christ has given us new life. Christ gives us hope. It is Christ who sustains us through life.

The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

The spiritual journey of life is about growing up in love. It is growth, and growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.

Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination…closer to the trailhead…closer to holiness.

What is our G. O. R. P.? What sustains us so that we make it to the end? What makes us holy? I remind us again of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability. We know about bible study, too. Another is submission. All of these are the disciple’s G. O. R. P. They strengthen us and grow us in holiness.

There is another one, too. It is the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is strength here. There is grace here. At the Lord’s table, we are reminded of love, and we’re reminded to love. And, we’re reminded that love is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that the Apostle Paul calls us to in Romans 12: 1 – 2—the surrender of ourselves to Christ:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We recall Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we see in it his sacrifice, and we acknowledge he calls us to the same sacrificial life. At the Lord’s table, we find strength for the journey. Here we are enabled to keep moving forward.

The Australian coat of arms pictures two animals—the emu, a flightless bird, and the kangaroo. The animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the Australian citizens. Both the emu and kangaroo can move only forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail. In the following of Jesus, G. O. R. P. helps us be like the emu and kangaroo, moving only forward, never back…becoming more like Jesus everyday–that is holiness…that is sanctification.

Until next time, keep looking up…