March 2nd, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Sermons
After yesterday’s sermon on “Living Christianly,” and in light of the call to put off “others-hurting speech” from Colossians 3:8-9, a Calvary congregant handed me a a business card-sized reminder of the importance of “thinking” before we speak. Here’s the content of the card:
“God . . . help me to T.H.I.N.K. before I speak. My words must be . . .
- T – True (Psalm 34:13)
- H – Helpful (Eph. 4:29)
- I – Inspiring (1 Thess. 5:11)
- N – Necessary (Eph. 5:4)
- K – Kind (Prov. 15:1)
Colossians 4:6 is then printed at the bottom of the card: “Let you conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Thanks for this simple, solid challenge to T.H.I.N.K. before we speak!
February 26th, 2009 — Church, Sermons, Theology
Colossians 3:5-11, this Sunday’s sermon text, contains a pair of what scholars of the ancient world and the New Testament call “vice lists.” The first is in 3:5: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (NIV). The second is in verse 8: “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” The items in this list look, at least at first blush, rather randomly selected. And not a few scholars would say that they are, and that this is precisely what we would expect of a list like this when it’s compared with similar lists in the ancient writings of pagan and Jewish authors.
But are they? Or might there be some underlying thematic coherence to either of these lists? Or both of them together?
February 19th, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Personal, Sermons, Theology
I’m preparing to preach from Colossians 3:1-4 this Sunday and I’m musing on the meaning of “things above” and “earthly things” in 3:1 and 3:2. We are, Paul says, to set our hearts and minds on “things above” and not on “earthly things”:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
What are these “things above” to which Paul is pointing? And what are these “earthly things”? For example, is a computer an “earthly thing,” and an angel a “thing above”? So that if we want to follow Paul’s advice I must stop typing (since it leads me inevitably to think about an “earthly thing”) . . . and start meditating on beings that occupy another metaphysical plane of existence, not earthly but above?
And what does it mean to “set” our heart and mind on the one or the other?
February 16th, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Personal, Sermons
What happens when it’s about the rules? What happens in your heart or mine when rules become the main thing? What happens in a family when a mom or a dad or a teenage child becomes preoccupied with rules? Or what happens in a church when its people are more intent on following rules than following Christ?
When it’s all about the rules, we begin to play certain roles. When it’s all about the rules, something comes over us, and we begin thinking and acting in certain predictable ways. This was true of those in Colossae, whom Paul is critiquing in Colossians 2:16-23. For some, it had become all about the rules, and Paul warns the Colossians about what happens.
You play the judge and condemn others (Colossians 2:16)
First of all, when it’s all about the rules, you play the judge and condemn others. When it’s all about the rules, you find yourself dressed in dark robes, behind the bench, gavel in hand, law-books open, holding court on other Christians. Evidently, some were doing this in Colossae, so Paul had to admonish and encourage the Colossian Christians: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival or New Moon celebration or Sabbath day” (2:16).
When it’s all about the rules, you interact with other Christians as though they were accused felons, and you assume it’s your job to decide their case in accordance with the law. “Are they guilty or innocent?” “Have the transgressed or not?” Oblivious to the planks in your own eyes, you eagerly and rather sanctimoniously look for little piles of sawdust in your brother or sister’s eye (see Matthew 7:3-5).
The biblical example of a life lived according to the rules and thus playing the judge are the Pharisees, about whom Jesus had a few rather blunt things to say. For the Pharisees, it was all about the rules, and thus they often assumed the part of the judge and felt it their moral responsibility to pronounce condemnation on others. Even the sinless Son of God came under their watchful eye and condemning gaze: “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Mark 2:16). “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24).
You play the umpire and disqualify others (Colossians 2:18)
Second, when it’s all about the rules, you play the umpire and disqualify others. When it’s all about the rules, you find yourself dressed in stripes, behind home base, playing the umpire on other Christians. When it’s all about the rules, you interact with the church and other Christians as though they were a baseball team, and you’re the umpire. And you view it as your responsibility to make the tough calls: Safe? Or tagged? Strike? Or ball?
There were some umpires in Colossae, evidently a real spiritually sophisticated bunch, who saw it as their responsibility to disqualify others. So Paul says to the Colossians: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize” (2:18). Don’t let them play the umpire on you! This is an ever-present danger within a congregation, when certain of its members begin donning the umpire’s apparel – and attitude!
You play the sergeant and call for submission from others (Colossians 2:20-21)
Third, when it’s about the rules, you play the sergeant and call for submission from others. When it’s all about the rules, you find yourself dressed in military fatigues, whistle clinched between your teeth, and a mean look on your face, playing the drill sergeant. The church becomes a platoon and you, the sergeant in command, barking out orders in commanding tones: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (2:20). Not only that, but you get irritated – sometimes downright offended – when your orders aren’t obeyed immediately and unquestioningly.
This is what happens when we are preoccupied with rules: we become judges or umpires or sergeants, condemning, disqualifying, calling for submission. We come to see other Christians and the church itself, not as people redeemed by grace and transferred into the Body of Christ, but as a group of convicts on trial, or a team on the verge of defeat, or a platoon needing to be disciplined.
Some of you have encountered others Christians like that. They’re brittle; they’re harsh; they’re edgy (in a bad sense!). Some of you come from churches like that: filled with drill sergeants or umpires or judges – and the consequences for the entire atmosphere of the church were devastating. Still others of you, to be blunt, have been guilty of acting like that; we all have. We’ve banged the gavel in condemnation of others too readily; we’ve blown the whistle and disqualified others too quickly; or we’ve shouted out orders at others too loudly; and, frankly, we’ve left a trail of human debris in our wake.
So let’s commit, by the grace of God, to not play the part of the judge or the umpire or the sergeant, either in our homes or in our churches. Let’s let God play those parts. Let’s let God be God and be the only judge with the wisdom required to justify and condemn. And let’s let God be God and be the only umpire with the authority to disqualify. And let’s let God be God and be the only sergeant with the right to call for submission to his commands. Let’s let God be God and play these parts, not us, because only God is holy enough to handle it!
February 15th, 2009 — Church, Ministry, Sermons
It’s not about the rules. Yet, ironically, as followers of Christ we can sometimes, perhaps even often, slip into thinking that it is.
As we continue in our series in Colossians, we have come to Colossians 2:16-23, where Paul, in a variety of ways, drives home this fundamental point about Christian living: it’s not about the rules.
In fact, Paul provides, I believe, at least five reasons why continuing on in Christ and as a Christian is not all about the rules.
- Rules aren’t the point, they’re only pointers. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (2:16-17). Shadows. That’s what rules and regulations and even laws and commandments are (see Hebrews 10:1). A fit metaphor, because shadows, not only are not the reality themselves, but they point to the reality. And in this case, the reality to which diet and days points is Christ himself.
- Rules tend to cut off connection from the true source of growth. This is Paul’s point in 2:18-19: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.” As a result, then, Paul says in the next verse: “He has lost connection with the Head” (2:19), the only true source of growth.
- Rules don’t cause growth, God does. Paul says just this very thing at the end of 2:19: “He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” Did you hear that? “As God causes it to grow.” Here we find an axiom or first principle of the Christian life and Christian living: God causes growth! Rules don’t cause growth. Regulations don’t cause growth. The Law doesn’t cause growth. Only God causes growth.
- Rules are for a world believers have left behind. This fourth reason why continuing in Christ and growing as a Christian isn’t all about rules is perhaps the most subtle, and yet the most profound. Listen carefully, then, to what Paul says in 2:20-22: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” If you are a Christian, you have died to that realm called the “world,” where rules and regulations reign supreme. Yet the reality to which the rules point is now realized in the transformation you experience because of the gospel and grace of God.
- Rules can’t ultimately restrain an unruly heart. Paul’s pretty blunt and straightforward here. And his point is right there in the final verse of this passage: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (2:23).
But what, then, does it mean to live as a Christian, in this world, yet as though it were not all about the rules? It means, first of all, to let the rules be the rules – and not something they’re not! That is, let the rules in your life or even in the word of God be, not the reality upon which we feed, but (to change the metaphor) the guard rails that keep us from ourselves. “Thou shalt not covet” is a guard rail to protect us from ourselves and others. But it’s not life-transforming; only the presence and person and work of Christ is!
Which leads to a second point. Living as a Christian as though it were not all about the rules means, positively speaking, living like it’s all about Christ. Because it is!
But what does this look like in your life, in your home, in our church? In your life, it means relying upon the grace of God to affect the change you so desire rather than upon your own discipline and striving. In your home, it means pointing your spouse or your children to Christ and his authority, rather than to you and yours. In our church, it means being a place for the broken, not a place for the pious. It means checking the gavel and the umpire’s uniform and the sergeant’s whistle at the Information Desk in the Portico before you seek to “judge” (2:16) or “disqualify” (2:18) or call others to “submit” to your rules and regulations (2:20-21).
What, in short, does it mean to live a life that’s not all about the rules, but all about Christ? It means, as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, to live a life with your heart set on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; it means to live a life with your mind set on things above, not on earthly things. “For you died,” as Paul says, “and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).
November 20th, 2008 — Church, Ministry, Outreach, Personal, Postmodernism, Sermons, Theology, Worship
At Calvary Memorial Church, we’ve been reflecting for the past several weeks on Paul’s prayer that the Colossians live a “fully pleasing” life (Col. 1:9-14). Many of us were struck by the fact that for Paul the leading aspect of a fully pleasing life is . . . good works. Paul prays that the Colossians would be “bearing fruit in every good work” (1:10).
But what might this look like in concrete, doable terms for you and me? Well, you can read about one great example (involving some Calvary folks!) in this week’s Wednesday Journal, in a piece by Abigail Cramton’s entitled, “Pouring Love, Breaking Through: Tutoring on Chicago’s West Side Benefits Tutors and Students.” As the tag-line suggests, Ms. Cramton highlights the mutual blessing and benefit of serving others through tutoring.
Her encouraging and thoughtful piece, in turn, got me to thinking about not only what bearing fruit in every good work might look, but why bearing fruit in every good work is commanded and commended in the Bible. Here are some of my thoughts:
- Good words adorn doctrine. Doctrine, or truth, is a beautiful thing, even when naked. But what’s even more beautiful is doctrine, or truth, dressed-up, as it were, in a life of good works, conviction clothed in good deeds while tutoring somewhere on the West Side. That’s why obedience is commanded and commended: “so that in every way [we] will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10).
- Good works encourage others to think highly of who God is. Good works point – ultimately not to themselves or to the doer, but to the One who enables and receives them. So we are told by Jesus to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Good works are beams of light that radiate out from a magnificent Source.
- Good works enliven one’s own life of faith. Ms. Cramton’s article contains a wonderful line in which she points out that the tutors she featured in her article “serve out of a conviction of faith and believe that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is an allusion to one of the only statements of Jesus outside the Gospels; it’s found in Acts 20:35, where a follower of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, says that when he was with a church in the ancient city of Ephesus, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” More blessed to give than to receive? A truly stunning and even paradoxical thought: the one who gives actually receives more than the one who receives. And yet that’s precisely the mystery – almost, you might say, the magic – of obeying and serving in Jesus’ name: it enlivens one’s own life and faith. One finds that in the act of giving, one receive far more.
- Good works meet real needs. Of course, good works are designed not only to showcase the greatness of God or enliven the faith and life of the one who does them; they’re also designed to meet real, practical, concrete needs in our communities. Which is itself a good in itself.
- Good works will be met with a real reward. One of the more terrifying and yet terrific passages in all the Bible is Matthew 25. In that chapter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus paints a rather sobering picture of when he will one day return to earth to judge humankind according to their good works – according to whether they have fed the hungry, given a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and needy, cared for the sick, visited the oppressed and suffering (25:34-40). And as that passage makes clear, as do innumerable other passages in both the Old and New Testaments, these good works will be met with a very real reward: the kingdom itself. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (25:34).
So may we continue to abounded in every good work, for the good of our communities, the good of our souls, and the glory of God.
October 6th, 2008 — Postmodernism, Sermons
A few have asked for the quotes related to postmodernism from yesterday’s sermon entitled, “Grace and Peace,” from Colossians 1:1-2. My first point was that “peace is the purpose of Colossians.” My third point was that “peace is the achievement of grace.” My second point – intended to demonstrate the relevance of the first and third points – was that “peace is the longing of these postmodern times.”
I sought to illustrate this second point, that peace is the longing of these postmodern times, by pointing to two examples: that of the consummate postmodern person, on the one hand, and the consummate postmodern community, on the other.
The first, the postmodern person, comes from one of the more provocative and influential American philosophers, Richard Rorty, Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. In the introduction to his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty sketches a figure he calls the “liberal ironist,” or what I referred to as the consummate postmodern person. Rorty explains:
I borrow my definition of ‘liberal’ from Judith Shklar, who says that liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do. I use ‘ironist’ to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires – someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease” (p. xv).
In trying to identify a second example, that of the consummate postmodern community, I didn’t have very far to look. In fact, I only had to go as far as the Village of Oak Park website, where I then downloaded the community’s Diversity Statement. Here are the relevant paragraphs (the entirety of which can be found at: http://www.oak-park.us/public/pdfs/2003%20diversity%20statement.pdf):
The people of Oak Park choose this community, not just as a place to live, but as a way of life. Oak Park has committed itself to equality not only because it is legal, but because it is right; not only because equality is ethical, but because it is desirable for us and our children. Ours is a dynamic community that encourages the contributions of all citizens, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital and/or familial status, mental and/or physical impairment and/or disability, military status, economic class, political affiliation, or any of the other distinguishing characteristics that all too often divide people in society.
Oak Park’s proud tradition of citizen involvement and accessible local government challenge us to show others how such a community can embrace change while still respecting and preserving the best of the past. Creating a mutually respectful, multicultural environment does not happen on its own; it must be intentional. Our goal is for people of widely differing backgrounds to do more than live next to one another. Through interaction, we believe we can reconcile the apparent paradox of appreciating and even celebrating our differences while at the same time developing consensus on a shared vision for the future. Oak Park recognizes that a free, open, and inclusive community is achieved through full and broad participation of all its citizenry. We believe the best decisions are made when everyone is represented in decision-making and power is shared collectively.
Now, in neither of these examples do you hear the language of peace. Yet you certainly feel the longing for peace in both, don’t you?
Finally, let me conclude with a few observations.
- First, we won’t understand these postmodern times in which we live unless we come to terms with this underlying longing for peace, which, in my view, drives the whole outlook.
- Second, as Christians we must not scorn or despise, much less mock, postmodern expressions of a longing for peace, whether in the form of a bumper-sticker or an anti-war march, since a longing for peace should be our longing too.
- Third, as Christians we should let the “peace of Christ” (Col. 3:15) so shape our lives, both individually and corporately, that it becomes evident to all that only in the Gospel can one find the peace we all long for.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:19-20).
Listen to this sermon from October 5, 2008