Growing up in evangelical circles and especially amongst charismatics in college, genuine crying was held in high regard. An emotional reaction was typically seen as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s immediate action in your heart – a “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30) moment when our false self was temporarily broken down. Repentance that was not accompanied by tears was suspect. Heck, love that was not accompanied by tears was maybe not very strong. Now of course it was acknowledged that some people (typically males) were not nearly as prone to crying, but even then it was simply a matter of degree.
Our “heroes of the faith” biographies and stories were frequently filled with accounts of foreign missionaries who prayed and fasted until they cried profusely. This was seen as normal behavior for super saints and if you only prayed an hour a day and it wasn’t accompanied by tears, than you holiness was clearly, CLEARLY at a much lower level. Quotes from people like Hudson Taylor were frequently quoted in evangelism training or even seen on inspiration posters:
“Perhaps if there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire.”
Of course, I always felt like a bit of a loser because I didn’t cry that much. Now, I do cry some and even intensely, but it certainly isn’t a regular occurrence. I’d like to think it’s because I keep a level head rather than a hard heart. It’s probably some of both, and a lot of natural temperament and genetics too. I’ve always thought (and felt, ha see what I did there?) that a healthy theology or philosophy of human psyche would take this obvious diversity a little more into account. On paper it sometimes does, but in practice, even in church traditions that downplay emotions, tears (or their absence) still carry a lot of weight in expressing or determining how serious someone’s words are.
And all of that explains why I was so delighted to find this line near the end of the Celtic monastic Rule of St. Columba – the general guidelines for all the monks that served under him.
Thy measure of prayer shall be until thy tears come;
Or thy measure of work of labour till thy tears come:
Or thy measure of thy work of labour, or of thy genuflections until thy perspiration come often, if thy tears are not free.
You get that? Pray until you cry. Heard that one before. Or work so hard you cry (or collapse maybe). OR, if you aren’t the crying type, just pray and work until you what? Sweat. The water might not come from your eyes, but what about your skin? Are you working hard? This is perhaps just as decent an indicator of you sincerity. Colm Cille was a smart fellow to add that aside to his rule. I say we should keep the same in mind.
I found this ancient Gaelic poem, translated by early 20th century British scholar Robin Flowers, in an anthology of Celtic Christian writings. It was so good, I was surprised to find virtually no reference to it anywhere while searching the internet, and no text except locked in Google Books. That’s no good, so I am reposting it here so that others might enjoy it as well.
My thought it is a wanton ranger,
It skips away;
I fear ’twill bring my soul in danger
On Judgment Day.
For when the holy psalms are singing
Away it flies,
Gambolling, stumbling, lightly springing
Before God’s eyes.
‘Mongst giddypated folk it rambles,
Girls light of mind;
Through forests and through cities gambols
Swifter than wind.
Now in rich raths and jewels glowing
‘Mid goodly men;
Now to the ragged pauper going
‘Tis fled again.
Without a boat it skims the ocean,
‘Tis swift to fly
Heavenward with unimpeded motion
From earth to sky.
Through all the courses of all folly
It runs, and then
Lightly, untouched of melancholy
Comes home again.
Vain is the hope to hold or bind it,
The unfettered thought
Wanton, unresting, idle-minded,
Sets chains at nought.
The sword’s keen edge, the whip’s sharp chiding
It scorns, grown bold;
Like an eel’s tail it wriggles, sliding
Out of my hold.
No bolt, no bar, no lock, no fetter,
No prison cell
Can stay its course; they serve no better
Pits deep as Hell.
O fair, chaste Christ! who in all places
Seest all men’s eyes
Check by the Spirit’s sevenfold graces
Thought’s wandering wise.
Terrible Lord of earth and heaven!
Rule Thou my heart!
My faith, my love to Thee be given,
My every part!
So in thy companies to-morrow
I too may go;
Loyal and leal are they. My sorrow!
I am not so.
The question of Christianity in England is equally unsettled. Gildas wrote in the sixth century: “These islands received the beams of light … in the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, in whose time this religion was propagated without impediment or death.” The point about this is that Tiberius died in AD 37. Nor does Eusebius contradict this date, though scholars of course have difficulty explaining. Nevertheless, by AD 1999 Tertullian, listing the many peoples to whom the religion of Christ has come, can include, “the place of the Britons, which are inaccessible to the Romans.”
-Celtic Christianity, p.13, intro by Christopher Bamford
The extremely early appearance of Christianity in Britain and Ireland is a curious piece of history. The theory that is spread via a group of adventerous Syrian monks, bypassing France and Spain by boat, has gained traction in recent years. This accounts for the eastern flavor still detectable in the heirs of the Celtic church today. I think one reason it took so long for scholars to take this idea more seriously is that it’s become mixed up or conflated with the much later myth about Joseph of Arimathea bringing the Holy Grail to Briton shortly after the ascension of Christ.
It’s curious that I find the two most interesting pockets of Christian history to be that of Ireland and that of Ethiopia, another early adopter who was, as Tertullian put it, “inaccessibe to the Romans”. In fact, Ethiopia was still inaccessible to the Romans (or Italians) in modern times, having their secular 1896 invasion squashed and their attempt at occupation in the 1930s was short-lived as well. Though buried under centuries of cultural customs and changes, something peculiar of the earliest saints remains in their tradition – something no longer present in the bulk of the west – something you can’t quite put your finger on – but something good.
By this time into the previous year, I had written over 20 blog posts. So far I’m only at 7. Why? The new job takes a lot of time and energy. But it’s certainly interesting and engaging, so I don’t really have anything to complain about.
I’ve been working a fair amount of late nights, and what do I find myself listening to again and again? Not many of my favorite albums hold up to such abuse, but there are a few that do. This largely unknown new age/sci-fi concept album ‘Songs of Distant Earth’ from Mike Oldfield is really a winner. It’s based on the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same title. It is strictly only to be listened to uninterrupted from end to end. Give it a spin when nobody is around to bother you.
A couple of years ago, I went to a missions conference put on by some of my Reformed friends. The keynote speaker was a local pastor essentially telling everyone NOT to become a missionary. Classic.
The line of reasoning was familiar to me: There is lot of important work to do here – don’t waste tons of money flying to some distant land to try and help people you don’t know. Make a difference in the culture you know – the one in your backyard. If you aren’t already doing lots of service and mission-y stuff already right now where you are, then you will obviously make a terrible missionary. Do you regularly visit the meth-heads in the trailer park down the road? No? Well then how do you expect your are going to minister to poor folks in some village in Africa? See. You should just stay home, work hard at your job, have lots of kids, and get more involved in your local church. Foreign missions sound romantic, but they are really just for a tiny handful and you probably ain’t it.
This sort of advice has become even more common as books like When Helping Hurts have made the rounds in the past decade. Heck, now going abroad isn’t just a wasted opportunity at home, but it’s maybe even destructive. If you really can’t stand it here in the West, at least make sure you do something on the “approved” list, preferably Bible translation.
Now here is the thing: I don’t disagree with any of this. There really is a ton you can do right where you are – an endless amount and you may in fact be the very best person to do those things – raise those children, volunteer at the food bank, run VBS, be the “salt” in that workplace, love your neighbor, be a political activist – whatever shape that might take. Maybe for some it means even the more formal steps of becoming an elder or deacon or pastor. And if you are looking for horror stories about how some missionary couple’s marriage fell apart or they lost all their money or their kids got abused at some boarding school – you don’t have to look far. There are risks obviously – maybe ones you would, by most accounts, be foolish to take. Finally, I am a huge fan of bible translation and really think it is one of the best works to be doing abroad.
Despite all that, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this whole argument. It has just never quite sat right with me. It seemed just a tad too easy, or a bit to status quo or maybe too much of an exercise in how the Great Commission might be shoehorned into suburbia. But despite this feeling, I never really had much of a comeback to these sorts of warnings and advice. Hearing them again at this missions conference was a bit disheartening, but it was a feeling I was used to. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.
Then this, from John Piper’s blog. I only noticed it because he was writing a few comments about a short trip he made to Ethiopia to visit some missionaries there. This comment stuck out in particular:
One medical missionary corrected a common missionary counsel. He said that we are often told, if you are not an evangelist in America, getting on a plane won’t make you one elsewhere. He said that in his case this was not true. For him, the commitment to leave a lucrative, American medical practice and serve in Ethiopia has given him both opportunities and boldness in witness that he never had in his medical practice in the U.S. This is true, he said, both stateside and on the plane, and in Ethiopia. So let’s be careful about being too absolute in the kind of pronouncements we make.
This makes complete sense. This along with one other recent big change in my life (my first major job change in 13 years) made me realize what the flaw is in the usual anti-foreign-mission rhetoric. The flaw is that it disregards the RUT. It underplays the incredible power that a change in vocation and location has in being able to free us from our established habits and routines, to open up new creative possibilities, and to even bring to the surface largely hidden personality traits.
When you live in very comfortable America day-in and day-out, your mind rests on the things around you. You think about how to give you kids the best economic opportunities – and how to make it to their piano recital on Thursday. You think about how to schmooze the people on that next teleconference for work. You dress the same as the folks around you. You think a lot about how nice it would be to remodel your kitchen with that extra money you might have next month. You have some friends over to drink beer and watch football, or you visit some other friends and drink wine and play cards. You serve at church too, but there is some stuff you’d really like to do that doesn’t seem like it will ever happen because someone else is already doing that or you’re too timid to bring it up. Besides, there is lots of other work to do. It’s just life. It’s normal. It’s fine.
But it could be an unhealthy rut, and breaking out of a rut is really, really hard to do. Few things have the power to do it and our own self-will or personal resolution are unlikely to do the trick. It can be really good for you. Maybe not comfortable, almost certainly not tidy, but perhaps very good. I believe the Holy Spirit has his hand in making us content and faithful where we are, perhaps forever. But I also believe this windy person of the Trinity may also have a hand in blowing us in new, slightly scary directions – even if he has to pry us out of our rut with a crowbar.
That is finally why, after all the reasonable advice, I still wish we would end on the note of encouraging people (not discouraging them) to possibly consider foreign mission work. Don’t automatically write it off. Are you relieved when your favorite pastor or authority figure tells you not to worry about it? That is perhaps a sign that you really should stay home. But for ongoing years after does the thought still stick with you? Pray to God and ask for guidance. Do you think he will withhold that?
I came across this fabulous passage from N.T. Wright while doing research for a recent sermon. I couldn’t find a place to use it this time, but I’m posting it here, with a few extra bracketed lines I added to fill in the ideas.
It’s from the conclusion of The New Testament and the People of God, p.425
The New Testament writers claim that, though there is only one god, all human beings of themselves cherish wrong ideas ABOUT this one god. In worshipping the god thus wrongly conceived, they worship an idol. Pagans worship gods of wood and stone, distorting the creator by worshipping the creature. Jews, Paul argues in parallel with this, have made an idol of their own national identity and security, and so have failed to see what the covenant faithfulness of their god, the god of Abraham, had always entailed.
Both [Christians and Jews] might, of course, be wrong. the Stoics might be right: there is one god, since the whole world id divine, and we humans are part of it. The Epicureans, and their modern successors the Deists, might be right: there is a god, or possibly more than one, whom none of us knows very well and all of us distantly acknowledge, with ignorance and distortion. The pagans might be right: there are different ‘divine’ forces in the world, which need to be propitiated when angry, and harnessed to one’s own advantage when not, The Gnostics might be right: there is a good, hidden god who will reveal himself to some of us, thereby rescuing us from this wicked world of matter and flesh, which are the creation of an evil god Or the modern atheists or materialists might be right. [There is nothing but the atoms that make up the earth and the little electrical impulses in your brain providing an illusion of meaning.] There is no neutral ground here. We are at the level of worldview, and here ultimate choices are involved.
The claim of Christianity from its earliest days, and subsequently, is that the creator of the world, the god of Abraham, has revealed himself through Jesus, and through his own spirit, in ways which disallow the various pagan claims [and the claims of everyone else].
This conclusion is of course unpalatable in a world (our own)…
I’d like to move on to the next section now, though continue the same line of thought.
Chapter 12 from 1 Corinthians touches on another divisive issue in the church, and that is the place of certain spiritual gifts (as they are called) in the day-to-day life of us believers. Many church bodies, especially in the last century, have decided that things like divine healing and speaking in tongues are really valuable and have emphasized them a lot – encouraging people to try and exercise them. Others have come down hard on the other side, saying that most of these supernatural things spoken of in the New Testament don’t really exist anymore. Others have sought to be inclusive and have left the door open by being intentionally vague on issues regarding spiritual gifts. Anyone know what we do here in this congregation? If you’ve read our statement of faith, you know there is a lot of stuff about Jesus in there, but nothing really, positive or negative, about these kinds of spiritual gifts. We have people of all backgrounds here. I grew up in Baptist circles where the more miraculous gifts were seriously downplayed, though not entirely dismissed. In college though, I benefited immensely from attending a Pentecostal church where these things were always being talked about. I know from speaking to some of you here that we have a lot of people from both these backgrounds and more here today.
So if you’re looking for someone to get into the nitty gritty details about how the Holy Spirit works, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The analogy most often used for the spirit in scripture is that of a wind. Even Jesus himself describes it this way in John 3:8:
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Trying to pin the spirit’s activity down is something that requires a ton a humility and I am not going to try to do that today. But I do want to try to figure out why Paul is giving this advice to his readers, and to us.
Now some might read this passage and say, Oh look, Paul is explaining how spiritual gifts work by giving us a nice tidy little list of them. But this is really just a short list of possible examples. If you look at the context of the letter, he isn’t giving a general exposition on the way the Holy Spirt might manifest himself in Christian’s lives. He, like in all other chapters of 1st Corinthians, is dealing with a specific problem in the church referenced in an earlier letter. In this case, it seems as if some people in the church were acting like they were more important than others because of their spirituality. This is why Paul goes on in the next section to use the analogy of the human body and how not every member of the church can be a hand or an eye and whatnot.
How is this? Well, the Greek word for “spiritual gift” used most of the time in the New Testament is “charismata”. It is where we get the word charismatic. In the secular world these days, someone that is “charismatic” if they have an enthusiastic and attractive personality. In the church though, a “charismatic” is someone who is generally enthusiastic about spiritual gifts, especially speaking in tongues. Now Paul could have used that word here but he instead uses a word that is more general, “pneumatikos” and means “spiritual things” or “spiritual people”.
The point of the passage isn’t to talk about the gifts themselves, or the various manifestations of the spirit themselves, but the people using them or showing evidence of them in their lives. The point is that everyone in the body of Christ is of equal value.
In the world, teachers and professors and held in much higher regard than students. But not so in the Kingdom of God. Someone who works on a farm or in an office all day is not a second class Christian compared to the “first class” pastor or foreign missionary. That’s nonsense and Paul is always trying to straighten us out on that. It’s not a sliding scale between plain and cool, but rather like different important parts of a physical body working together.
The same goes for spiritual giftings as it does for vocation. Someone who prophecies and might see visions from God is not more (or less) special than the person who just studies the word or even the guy that cleans the toilet. (Hopefully the same guy does all three!) A woman who has been given a lot of faith – and when she prays for sick people they get well – that person is not a first class Christian over the 2nd class Christian mother who stays by a feverish child throughout the night administering cold cloths and comforting words.
Here is another example. Two Christians kneel down to pray and ask God for forgiveness and to thank him and commune with him. One has an ecstatic experience – feeling almost literally wrapped in the arms of Christ. The other feels nothing much at all but finds himself less affected by temptation the next day, to his relief. How did both things happen? The Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ today, breathing on each of them. He breathes on us too, but it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different, for each individual.
As the passage from today says, different gifts, same spirit. Different ministries, different jobs, same Lord, different activities, same God.
Now you may be saying, wait just a minute. Lot of people call themselves Christians and have got pictures of Jesus all over the place, but they seem to have some terrible problems and don’t seem to be following him much at all. What about the churches here in America who are trying to normalize homosexual behavior? Some of them even have gay and lesbian priests or pastors. Are you saying their cool too? Well, no, I’m not. Go back to our litmus test for a while. Did Jesus Christ, the God-Man come in the flesh? What’s really interesting throughout history is that when a church body or tradition starts to slide into sin or heresy in some way, what they say about the nature of Jesus slips at exactly the same time. It might not seem connected at first glance, but if you get digging you will find that a confident proclamation of the risen historical Jesus sneaked right out the back door as the capitulation to political correctness and liberal tolerance came in the front door. In churches where there is little to no sexual ethic preached, you will find that Jesus has become mostly just a nice abstract idea. Maybe he was just a spirit. Maybe he was just an invention of Paul or the other well-meaning apostles. This kind of mystical non-fleshly Jesus gets a lot of air time on NPR and public television documentaries and such. He starts showing up wherever authority of scripture is tossed aside. Why? Well, if what you do with your BODY, with your sexual parts, or with the unborn baby inside you, if those things don’t really matter, then to stay a Christian, you HAVE to have a Jesus who doesn’t really have a body either. You can’t have a messy bloody Jesus on a cross and then have him really walking around the middle east alive a few days later. That would imply what you do with your own flesh might be of some consequence. This idea of God coming in the flesh in Jesus is what theologians call the incarnation. You will find that wherever teaching on the incarnation gets mushy, trouble is close at hand. It’s been happening on and off, here and there, for the last two millennia. Our day and age is no different.
But for those who are still faithful to Christ, I would urge you to treat them as brothers and sisters, not as rivals on the playground. Love and accept the other Christians in town. Play nice with them. Praise them! Pray for them. Be happy when things go well for them. Be sad when they face adversity.
Frankly, I think that is one our strengths here.. We have made friends with a lot of other bodies of believers in the region and by not being too dogmatic about the way we “do church”, we’ve been able to keep those friends. Here are a few examples:
- Celebrate Recovery is an interdenominational ministry that meets here on Friday nights. It’s not run by our pastors, but they use our building and kitchen and we give them money to keep it running.
- Men from the local Evangelical Free church come to our men’s retreat. On the flip side, we encourage people here to attend marriage seminars at E-Free and also the special services put together on days like Good Friday.
- We have a lot of bible studies and small groups meeting throughout the week and it’s not unusual to see people from other churches around town attend some of them. At the same time, some us attend meetings put on by other groups. Neither has to feel threatened.
- We don’t try to do everything. We don’t have a college ministry. There is Cru and other people doing a good job at that. The guy who runs Cru locally happens to attend here, but a lot of his students go to other churches and believe slightly different things.
- Pastor K. has is office downtown at the theater where many other churches meet. He provides counseling services for folks from all over, many of them who don’t go to church here.
- Pastor L. at the local classical Christian school, which is largely run by one other church, but people from over 20 different churches in the area send their kids there. At the same time, we have lots of homeschooling families here as well as some that send their kids to the public schools. You don’t have to do one thing or the other to be accepted or approved around here. We trust you know what you are doing with your family, even if it’s not the same thing some of the rest of us are doing.
- Several churches around here put on Vacation Bible Schools during the summer. Occasionally we too. Parents from all around cross lines to send their kids or to even volunteer.
- People from this church often make a showing at interdenominational events like the Right to Life march we had downtown just a few weeks ago. Tim and his family often help out with those. Things like that are good opportunities to get out and meet your neighbors from other Christian traditions and show some solidarity.
A notable portion of our budget goes to the local crisis pregnancy center, which nearly all the churches in town also support.
You can participate in this too. That’s what I would like you to take away from this message today.
We are just humans. Our minds and bodies are limited. We only have so much time in the day and only so much energy. We only have so much fight in is. Don’t waste your days and your brain cells fighting with other Christians. Don’t fight with your brothers. Don’t hate on your sisters. Don’t hate on your parents either, even if they wish you had stayed in the Christian denomination you grew up in or maybe never joined one at all.
You can do this by not trash-talking other Christians, even if you think some of their practices are strange, or silly, or maybe even harmful. Seek to understand them instead and give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they love Jesus even if their devotion looks quite a bit different from yours. That’s a much better place, and a more Biblical place to start than with fear and suspicion until proven otherwise. If friends you have here leave and go to a different church, then stay in touch with them and don’t write them off. Ask yourself, “How can my community be enlarged?” Not, “How can I make my list of friends smaller and more selective?” Visit other churches sometimes especially when they are putting on a special event or conference. You’ll almost definitely learn something new and probably make a friend or two. The world is big. Don’t just stay in your own little ghetto. What we see here on the earth are just expressions of people trying to follow him and the holy spirit working in their hearts in unexpected ways.
You know, when I was young I used to think that if all the problems in the church were fixed, we would all be one giant group – the only source of division we be geography. Every city would have one big church with every last single Christian in town all meeting at the same joint to worship. Now though, I realize that is a silly and unsustainable idea. The city would need to be made of gold and filled with endless light and that time has not yet come. I think God loves diversity. He made so many different kinds of crazy animals and even us humans look so different from one another. I confess, I didn’t used to think people of other races were that beautiful, but now that I have a couple of adopted children of different races, gosh, I think they look fantastic. Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, aren’t they all so cool? Now I think, the more Christian churches we have in town, the better. The more variety we have, the more inclusive we can be, the more room there is for everyone, and the more room their is for leaders to step up too. I have some friends who are pastors and church planters and one of the exciting things I see them doing now is that whenever they have a church that gets to be about 200 people, they intentionally split it and start a new congregation on the other side of town. If it continues to grow, then they split it again. And each one evolves to have a different flavor and maybe even a slightly different theology over time. But it’s OK because their eyes are fixed on Jesus. Never becoming large also keeps leaders humble and prevents members from taking things too seriously.
So I hope that all of you, as you go about your lives, working to put a roof over your head or feed your kids and find some friends to confide in, that you stay steadfast in your trust that Jesus Christ has saved you, and is saving you, and is present in some fashion here in the church. Whether you end up staying here for the next 30 years, or move somewhere far away this summer, or anything in-between.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, Thank your for loving us, and thank you for making us all so different and beautiful and interesting. Lord, as the psalmist said, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” God, I pray that we might not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but at the same time be utterly convinced of the death and resurrection of your son, not budging an inch on that to accommodate any passing fad or fit into any crowd. Father, teach us ways to love our Christian brothers and sisters and send your Holy Spirit to soften our hearts so that we may actually do so. In your name we pray Jesus, Amen.
This is the text of the sermon I gave on January 26th, 2014. The theme is Christian unity and diversity, and the rather low bar of proper Christology. I try to give lots of practical examples. I’ve divided it into just two posts. As ecumenicism is something close to my heart and often on my mind, I was able to ad-lib quite a bit of this. The bulk of it is still here, though in a more stilted form and with less editing than usual. Some personal references have been scrubbed.
The scripture for today:
1 Cor 12:1-11
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: You know that you were pagans, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
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. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, thank you for giving us your Word for instruction. As Paul says in the scripture passage for today, “I do not want you to be ignorant.” God, I pray that you would use this little half-hour that someone gets up and talks at church each week to keep us a little less ignorant as well. But we know that none of these words mean much at all unless your Holy Spirit takes them today and works impossible things in our hearts. We ask you to send your Holy Spirit to do just that today, as you have in the past and we know you will continue to do throughout our lives. Even more than for your Word, we thank you for your love which, though we long to understand it, we don’t need to understand it to receive it, since you love us like a parent loves their little children. Jesus Christ, I ask that we would know your love today. Amen.
The Litmus Test
Alright, there are two things in the passage I’d like to talk about today. In verse three, Paul gives us a litmus test of sorts to determine whether a person or their ideas are of the Spirit of God or not. Some of you may remember using a litmus test in chemistry class, where you use a little strip of paper coated in a special reactive dye to measure the acidity of a substance. A few people around here still use them today for their jobs too. Here though I’m using the phrase “litmus test” figuratively to mean, as the dictionary says, “Any test which produces a decisive result by measuring a single indicator.” How do you know that something is of the spirit of God? Well, sometimes it’s tricky, but one really good guideline is what Paul says here.
No one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
Alright, so you hear anyone trash-talking Jesus? Not of God. Plain and simple. Can’t shut up about how great Jesus is? Well, even if they’re confused about some other things, that’s a really good place to start and they shouldn’t be written off so quickly.
The apostle John gives us a similar test in his first letter. This is from 1st John 4:2-3.
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.
So something may seem to be a good idea or seem to work or to make sense, but if it does not acknowledge Jesus Christ it’s not really of the Spirit of God and one should proceed with caution in handling it. And as John is a little more specific about it, acknowledging the IDEA of Jesus or saying something nice about him is not good enough. You have to acknowledge that Jesus Christ, this real person that actually walked around in Israel back about 2000 years ago, was actually God, creator of the whole universe, in the flesh. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of folks, but it is the one thing that really makes us Christians or not. Do you believe Jesus was the GOD-MAN? If so, then congratulations! You are some kind of Christ-person, a Christian. If the answer is “eh, not really”, then guess what? Whatever else you might say, you aren’t a Christian by anyone’s definition, you are something else.
Seemingly good things that do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
We have to be careful with any seemingly good thing that doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Free-market capitalism has done wonders to make the Western world rich and prosperous and dramatically reduce poverty and basic suffering. But it is not beholden to Christ but rather to the almighty dollar. The shareholder is in charge and private property is the chief virtue. These can be good things, but they are rooted in a hard-working humanity that perpetually pulls itself up by its bootstraps, not a God that comes to save a ruined people.
Modern medicine can do amazing things, saving us from deadly diseases and accidents through skillful surgery and miracle drugs. Many doctors practice out of a genuine desire to serve people made in God’s image. But it is not an end in itself and it cannot save us from death. To anyone whose been stuck in the hospital long-term or had to buy health insurance themselves lately knows there is a dark and oppressive side to this whole art and science. When personal choice, privacy, safety, and fulfillment are the governing principals rather than the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then the work itself will become sick.
Democracy too is not the least bit holy. Democracy says, you have a right to have things your way if you can get enough people to agree with you. Man is the center. You can’t really have an election to decide if Jesus Christ is really of God. He might get voted out of office next year. Jesus asks that we be like him, giving up our lives.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
When is this from? 1776? It’s from the Declaration of Independence. I think some people think this is a Christian or biblical idea here. It’s not really though. This was written by Thomas Jefferson – a clever man to be sure, but someone who thought Jesus totally not important. Jefferson was a deist. That is, he believed in a distant, abstract Creator, but not a loving God who came to rescue us. In this system, who is the savior? It’s us. We save ourselves through our hard work and pursuit of happiness. We don’t need a Messiah – it’s our right to have that covered already.
Now I don’t mean to knock these things too much. Let’s have free markets and good medicine and democratic governments that resist corruption. But let’s have these markets and clinics and capitols populated by a people who love Jesus and who are willing to serve him even at great personal cost.
So these things DON’T necessarily confess Jesus Christ as Lord. We can’t count on the Holy Spirit always working through them. So what can we count on? The church! Yes, it’s kind of a mess, but we Christians are who the Holy Spirit is always working on and through. We DO pass Paul’s test here – we do declare Jesus is Lord. We even get together and sing songs about it every week.
So why do Paul and the other apostles and Christians throughout history have to encourage us so often towards unity? It isn’t because we argue about Jesus being God or not – that’s actually settled. We are so much alike. That leaves smaller things to quibble about. You know how fiercely brothers can fight with each other? It’s because they are typically so alike. You are actually much less likely to get in a fight with a stranger. Throughout history, the bloodiest wars are often civil wars. We Christians do that too unfortunately. The more alike we are, the more likely we are to forget the big things we hold in common and argue about smaller details.
There are lots of divisive issues in the church today here in America. If you live in Africa or Asia, the issues are different, but we are most familiar with the ones right here. It’s one of the main reasons we have so many church denominations. What are some things Christians have really liked to argue about here in the last century or so?
Music! What music you should play in church of course! Should we all sing together, or leave that mostly to professionals? Should we only sing or are instruments ok? What about contemporary instruments like electric guitars? How about drums? Should we sing old songs or new songs? Should we sing lots and lots of songs, or just a few so we can spend most of our time listening to bible reading or teaching. Should we sing really rich theological songs that will make very educated people happy or simple songs for people that can barely read? Should they be loud to show our enthusiasm or quite to show our reverence? Good questions. But no matter how you slice it, what are nearly all the songs about? Is it Jesus being God and coming to save us? Christians!
Church ecclesiastical structure? Who’s in charge? Should it be Pope in Rome or someone closer to home? Should it be a regional group of leaders (a presbytery) or just a few elders from a local congregation? Maybe just one guy is really in charge in each gathering. Maybe it should be a democracy and we should vote about everything. Maybe having designated leaders is too subject to abuse so we should have super small decentralized churches that meet in peoples homes. Oh, and with all these different ways of running things, is Jesus still the God-Man, our only savior? Yes? OK. Great!
What’s another thing Christians argue about? How about something a little deeper and more important. How about the nuts and bolts – the mechanics, of how people actually get saved? Some people would call this the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate though I think both of those old guys, if alive today, would probably be a little upset to have their names thrown around and attached a pretty wide variety of ideas they may or may not have had anything to do with. But this is an important question, and different theologians and pastors and churches have come down in different places in how they explain from the Bible exactly how salvation works. Are you saved when you say a particular kind of prayer confessing your sins? Are you saved when you are baptized? Are you saved from before you were even born, from the foundation of the world? Can you get unsaved if you do some bad stuff and your not sorry enough about it? Can you stop Jesus from saving you if you really don’t like him? Are you really saved if you love God but your life is still kind of a mess. (Gosh, I hope so!) But who, what one person does ALL the saving, because he is God himself in the flesh? That’s right Jesus, Jesus, Jesus across the board.
A sampling of different Christian gatherings
A common American Evangelical church service
A Chinese house church.
The world doesn’t hate us because of our music or our institutions or even our theology. It’s Jesus they can’t stand. He’s the great stumbling block. There is no way around him. His historical death and resurrection throws a monkey wrench in everything and you either have to embrace it or run away. As Christians, we are learning to embrace Him, all of us, though we go about it in varied ways.
Representing or explaining the Holy Trinity well with words is notoriously difficult. Everyone keeps trying though.
In the 15th century, Andrey Rublev wrote an icon of the three members of the Godhead sitting around the table as they/he visited Abraham. It’s been the most classic image ever since if one is going to try and draw what the three-in-one might look like.
Key to the scene is the open spot at the table – for you, the viewer. God isn’t in deep space somewhere being all abstract and perfect. He’s right there at the table with you. You are invited to sit down.
Since I went to university at a music school named for a famous jazz artist, I am often asked if I actually like jazz. The answer is long and complicated, but the short version is: No. I think jazz is typically a lot of fun to play, but not much fun to listen to.
So then, it’s a pleasant surprise when I run across some jazz I really dig. Nearly all of the album Continuo by Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen is a pretty top notch and frequently keeps a melody in sight. Here is the track Arava, which is particularly good. Check it out even if you’ve given up on jazz.