ButGod, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…Ephesians 2:4-6
God is not dead. It’s a message that is kind of going around recently. It’s a terrific message, too…one the world needs to hear…one the church needs to send. For a lost and broken world, for a world in need of a savior, it is very, very good news…UNLESS, he is also fair. You see, if God is very much alive and is also very much about fairness, then you and I (and everyone else) are very much doomed.
When scripture says, “…even when we were dead in our trespasses…” that is what it means: doomed. It means that you and I (and everyone else) have made choice after choice after choice to please ourselves with little or no regard to God. It means we have opted for short-term prizes with enormous long-term (eternal) consequences. It means we have chosen to live without God and that is exactly what we deserve…an eternity without God. “Fairness”, then, would only mean one thing: getting what we deserve. It would mean our utter and complete destruction. That would be “fair”. That’s what we each have earned, according to our creator’s standards.
We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, of course. We look at our poor choices and bad behavior and then we immediately look for justification for it. We look to blame others for it. We look to compare ourselves to others and, finding someone who is “worse” than we are, we can take some solace …
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you… For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:13, 16-17
I have often said I could not fully invest in a pastor who has never suffered deep loss. “Grieving with those who grieve” is a critical part of the pastoral responsibility, and how can a church leader who has never grieved before possibly know how to start doing so now, over somebody else’s pain?
Similarly, I think I would have a difficult time listening to a pastor or teacher or spiritual leader call me to repentance and to confession unless I first know that he/she knows the humiliation of being laid bare before God in a moment of confession. That, it seems to me, is what gives a leader the credibility to “teach transgressors [God’s] ways” and to cause us sinners to return to God.
David expresses this brokenness so very well in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba. In this Psalm, he shared with all of God’s people his heart broken before the Lord. “Against you and you only have I sinned…” “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” It is a confession filled with remorse and humiliation. And it calls us to have that same contrite heart before God.
Moreover, Psalm 51 cries out to God for the very type of forgiveness which would later become the earmark of Christ’s church and of Christ-followers around the world. As a leader of other Christians, we must therefore have experienced this very intimate level of confession before we …
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Theology is difficult for me. Understanding God is difficult for me as well. I do so much better with stories and metaphors to try to get my mind wrapped around Biblical truth. Maybe you’re that way too…in fact, maybe we are all that way. Maybe that is why God gave us His Word in the form of Jesus and in the stories of the Bible rather than in formulas and spreadsheets. Surely that is why Jesus used stories, similes, and metaphors so much in his own communication.
The metaphor most of us use to describe our Spiritual pilgrimage, our faith walk, is relationship. We talk about our relationship with Christ, or with God. We use little sayings like, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” We use that term (that metaphor, if you will), because it best captures what it means to follow Christ. It is NOT a metaphor Jesus used for ancient times, because it would not have had meaning then. It is NOT a vocabulary we find anywhere in God’s Word. But, like the term “mission”, it still has profound meaning to our culture today, and it is a useful way of describing our part in this amazing revolution that is Christianity.
The call to follow Christ is a call to relationship. Yes. So, why doesn’t that answer all our questions? Why does that metaphor fall short for …
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”…While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:51-53, 59-60
Learning to show love to a lost and broken world is hard enough for us as individuals…that challenge is magnified a hundred fold for the church corporately. We, the church, must live in the tension between standing for holiness (separateness, not giving in to the ways of the world) and loving the broken people around us, who are still well-entrenched in the ways of the world. It is tricky, isn’t it?
When I read Stephen’s amazing sermon in Acts 7, and I see him brilliantly making the case for the pattern of rebellion throughout the history of the Jewish people (it is very much like an intervention…laying out all the evidence in a rational and indisputable way) and then leveling his charge against the church leaders of his time by associating them with that same pattern…I think to myself, “Now THAT is definitely going against the grain and calling out an entire culture!” I have seen churches who have no problem with walking against the grain…railing against our culture, screaming at all the sinners in the world and telling them they’re going to burn in hell, even telling them that …
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife… So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:1, 4-5
Triage: the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors merriam-webster
“Triage” is the term for having to make quick, hard decisions (usually medical) about which wound or patient to treat first in order to do the most good. In the spiritual warfare we call “church”, there are casualties…and none more so than when blatant and public immorality are at issue. That is what Paul confronted in the Corinthian church, and his counsel is both passionate and harsh. It is about spiritual triage.
If you are being honest, you will admit that you do not like this instruction from Paul one bit. Furthermore, if you are like me, you have twisted and contorted and struggled to find some way of interpreting and teaching this passage that somehow takes the “harsh dogma” out of it and makes it more understandable…more palatable to the mainstream Christian…more “in line” with our notions of grace and mercy. We do this in light of Jesus’ treatment of church discipline in Matthew 18 (“treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”…remember how Jesus treated the tax collectors?) and in light of Jesus’ treatment of the adulterous woman (“Then …
I believe that loneliness is sweeping our culture in epidemic proportions. I also believe the church is uniquely positioned and empowered to cure loneliness. We just need to figure out what genuine friendships look like in the face of life’s most painful circumstances.
I have not yet met a pastor or a church leader who thinks their church actually has too much community or too much in the way of genuine relationships. The truth is, all of us are always looking for ways to develop a deeper sense of community among our members. We all understand that there simply is no richer, deeper, more fulfilling sense of God’s love and grace than to be fully known and fully loved, i.e., to have someone know our darkest secrets and struggles and flaws and still love us!
I have found that kind of community in our church’s support group ministry. It is the absolute best way I have ever seen to say to hurting people, “We understand you and we love you anyway!” I have come to believe that the more church members we can get involved in it, the deeper our sense of community becomes. Here is a great example from that ministry:
The underlying message behind support groups is the same message which is at the heart of all genuine community: you are not alone. My church’s support group ministry is built on two simple foundational pieces: (1) God’s Word, and (2) friends who share your pain. There seems to be no limit to how much healing can take place with those two elements working together in a person’s life.
Of course, there is much more to a good support group ministry than that. But that is the core of it. Anything about this message which …
“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Luke 7:41-47
I have two leadership roles in my church, two different “small group” ministries for which I am partly responsible. I am pretty passionate about both of them, and I am always learning from each of them. The Gathering is my Sunday morning Bible study group, open to any and all comers, all ages, all walks of life and all levels of spiritual maturity. It is a slightly non-traditional offering as a part of my church’s “Sunday School”. We meet around tables, effectively creating “small groups” of 6 to 8 people every Sunday morning for Bible study. Heart 2 Heart is also a small group ministry, but for wounded people. Every Tuesday night, these dear friends meet in small groups built around specific issues and pains in their lives. Some of these groups …