By: Ryan Lassiter
As I think about this summer blog tour theme of Faith Unshackled, I have been thinking about what often shackles our faith. And sometimes, I think we have just made it too complicated. It is like we say, "It can’t be that simple!" and then start arguing doctrine, dogma, and Scripture to avoid the obvious.
I have been studying a great deal lately the greatest commandments. There are a few different versions of this in the gospels, but my favorite has become the one recorded in Mark 12. One of the scribes sees that Jesus is a legit teacher, so he asks him the big question. "Which commandment is the first of all?" In other words, what matters the most to God? Most of us know the story. Jesus says something like, "Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself." But in Mark’s recording, the scribe gives Jesus a robust "Amen!" "You are right he says!" Then he goes onto repeat back essentially what Jesus has already said and the scribe tacks on, "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." But here is the part I love. After the scribe says this, Jesus says, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
Wait? Loving God and loving neighbor puts us in a place where Jesus basically says, "You’re getting it now. You’re getting closer. You’re discovering the way ofthe kingdom?!" Can that be?!
Overwhelmingly churches (mine included) give a list of core values and beliefs that are something like, "We believe in God, we believe in the Bible, we believe in salvation, we believe in baptism and on and on. But for some reason, I have never seen a church say, "Our core belief is this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you are near the kingdom of God." That seems a bit too simple doesn’t it? Yet, that is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Or, if I might contextualize and paraphrase it a bit, that is more important than all of our "right beliefs," "sound doctrine," etc.
Then we have Matthew 25. I have heard multiple sermons and lessons on this text and how it teaches the reality of final judgment, which by the way I affirm. However, do we ever ponder the question, "What does Jesus say puts one on the wrong side?" If we do, the answer isn’t burnt offerings, sacrifices, correct doctrine, worship service attendance, reading the Bible, understanding baptism, etc. (though those are all REALLY important to talk about and do). Rather, the answer is those that gave food and drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. I think it would be fair to put that under the heading of"loving God and loving neighbor."
So when I think about unshackled faith that lives for Jesus with reckless abandon, I think it is best we get back to the basics. The church has been like the football team that has come up with really great offensive and defensive schemes, but forgot to teach the basics of blocking and tackling.
My prayer is that we could continue the important discussions about doctrine, Scripture, and beliefs, but that we would not neglect the seemingly simple and most important. My prayer is that we would get back to the basics. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And by the way, I don’t think you can do one without the other. Maybe the best way to love God is to get back to the basics and go love a neighbor. Maybe then the kingdom of God will come near.
Ryan Lassiter is the husband of Sarah, and father of 3 (almost 4!) beautiful children. He is also the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville, AL. Prior to that he served as a minster at the Golf Course Road Church of Christ in Midland TX, and he and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.
Over the next couple of months this blog will be hosting a series of posts by guest bloggers as I participate for my first year in an annual Summer Blog Tour. I hope you follow along, check out each author's personal blog, and find ways to unshackle your faith.
To introduce the theme for this summer's "Blog Tour," I will share Peter Horne's thoughts on our theme "Unshackled Faith." Peter moved to the United States from Australia in 1999 to pursue training for ministry. Having filled the roles of children’s minister, youth minister, and college minister in various locations around the US and Australia, he now gladly serves as the minister for the Lawson Rd Church of Christ in Rochester, NY. You can find more of his writing on his blog: www.aussiepete.wordpress.com. He also writes to equip multi-ethnic churches at www.culturalmosaic.org.
In 2017 my church has adopted the theme "Faith Unshackled". Intentionally ambiguous, this theme could be interpreted and applied in different ways. Inherent to the concept is the possibility that our faith may be shackled, restricted or limited.
Before I can decide if my faith languishes below God's intention for me, I must understand the possibilities.
The word faith simply means to trust someone else. When that someone else is God, then the things we trust him with can be big things. But sometimes the things God wants us to trust him with are bigger than we're ready to risk.
Jesus understood the dynamic nature of our faith in God. Our faith grows over time. As we establish a track record with God, our capacity to trust him with bigger areas and issues in our lives grows. Because faith does not grow along a straight line, the fragility of our faith means that some days we gladly trust God with everything, and then at other days we wonder if we can trust him with anything.
I know Jesus understands this phenomena because he witnessed it in his closest disciples.
In Matthew 17 a group of disciples attempted to cast out a demon... and failed. They approach Jesus seeking insight into why their efforts failed. Jesus responds with a well-known statement that I'm not sure encourages his disciples that they only need a little faith, or scolds them for not having even the smallest amount of faith.
"Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20
In the chapter prior, Jesus had given his disciples a big, enormous, radical faith challenge:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." Matthew 16:24-25
Both of these challenges from Jesus describe faith leading to radical outcomes. Yet so often we limit our faith to praying that Sister Jones' kidney stone will pass quickly. In this process we reduce faith that was intended to be bold, radical and world-changing, and we domesticate it. We reduce faith to something manageable. Rather than inspiring courage, innovation and adventures for God, we transform it into a safety net in case of emergencies and kidney stones. Of course God cares about kidney stones and the suffering of his children, but the possibilities of faith extend much further.
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth. He reminds them of his supreme power and promises his presence wherever they go. Then he watches to see their faith in action.
Today, I write about this moment that took place 2000 years ago on the shores of Galilee, from a time and country never imagined all those years ago. My existence and love for Christ demonstrate the power of those disciples' faith.
As my church explores what it means for us to live with Unshackled Faith, I have encouraged us not to leave our faith chained to the pew. We must demonstrate our faith in God to those around us.
This may mean involving oneself in church ministries such as our community garden, or apartment cookouts. Unshackled Faith could also mean hosting a cookout and inviting church members we've never eaten with before, just because we're committed to following Christ together. Or maybe we're finding ways to bring unchurched and churched friends together in non-threatening social settings. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting us to launch a new ministry or add our energy to an existing one.
We all have our comfort zones. The thing is, comfort zones don't require faith.
Today I was listening to Christian radio after thinking about this text in Matthew regarding the “unforgivable sin” and the speaker, John McArthur, a well-known voice in Bible study said that rejection of Jesus is the unforgivable sin. That is to say, if someone rejects Christ as Savior, then his or her destiny is Hell. Now, this is representative of what his claim was, and it puzzled me and I’ll explain by having you read a passage of scripture that is JESUS’ own words in the Gospel.
Matthew 12:31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
This is puzzling to me because Jesus actually contradicts the notion that those who reject Christ cannot be forgiven…and seems to place more emphasis on a more abstract notion of “blasphemy” or rejection of the Holy Spirit over and above His own treatment. So, if you are scratching your head, then you are in good company because I think this goes against the Evangelical notion that those who believe in the Lord will be saved and those who “believeth not” will be condemned. And this is why context is so important…in any scripture study that we can do! You might notice that our text begins with the word, “Therefore” and so as Mike Cope used to preach, when we see therefore we should stop and ask, “What is that there for?” So, leading up Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin was this…
Matthew 12:22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
When the Pharisees heard it they decided that this could not be the work of the Holy Spirit but the work of the prince of demons. This is a striking judgment…one that is motivated by their need for power and control, enticed by their religious superiority, walled in from any experience of the divine that was outside their theological boundaries. The question that was raised by the people who saw the miracle was asking if Jesus was the Messiah or Son of David…and the Pharisees do not speak against Jesus, but against the power, or empowering force, that makes the miracle possible. Jesus sees into their thoughts and motivations, and provides a lecture correcting their terrible logic and even worse understanding of the spiritual world. Then comes the hammer…
Jesus essentially says, “It is one thing to question who I am and to make claims about my validity…but when you question the very working of God, that being the Holy Spirit, and judge God’s action to be something else, you make an eternal mistake.” It makes you wonder who would have that type of arrogance? Who would place themselves as judge over the actions of God? Well, the Pharisees would…that’s who and that is why Jesus speaks so harshly to them. You see, the unforgivable sin is not the one time rejection of Jesus, because as long as there is breath in our lungs, we can choose to come to Christ. Speaking against Christ was not the issue here, but the issue was making oneself the judge over the Son of God’s action, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The thing that is clear to me is that the unforgivable sin is not something that the faithless commit…because they are ignorant. I’m not suggesting they don’t sin, I’m simply suggesting that the Bible and Jesus do not argue that the lost, or those outside of Christ, act in a way that is beyond the forgiveness of God. Therefore I must also conclude that God forgives many of the sins that some of our more conservative thinkers might see as a challenge to the church's purity. So, who does? Well, whether it is this passage or the warnings in the book of Hebrews and elsewhere, it is the religious person whose righteousness is prized over the Lord God to the point that they become the judge of whether or not God is acting or working in a particular case…those are the ones most at risk of committing the unforgivable sin.
It seems that those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and in Christ Jesus should be able to see God at work as discern it correctly. And yes, sometimes we miss it due to distraction or apathy or a myriad of other reasons. But that is not the same as a blatant condemnation of something God is doing among us that doesn’t fit our theology or our experience of religion. Let’s be cautious not to misrepresent the one who has been given as a gift to us empowering the work of God in our time, in our world.
According to the tradition of the church, Jesus has been busy in the last few days. On Sunday he entered Jerusalem. This action is known as the “triumphal entry” as people shouted “Hosanna” and laid palm branches down as a pathway into the city. I think it is fair to assert that the crowd gathered didn’t really understand the full implications of their welcome, nor did they understand the one whom they welcomed. (That might still be true for crowds gathered to worship God on Sundays…) Yet, Jesus knew the danger of coming back to Jerusalem and He was moving towards what we refer to as “Good Friday” and then “Resurrection Day.”
Well, today is Wednesday, and here are some readings and prayers and songs that might help us focus on Christ during the day today: (These have been selected from multiple internet resources and are not original to me)
14 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, went to the leading priests 15 and asked, “How much will you pay me to betray Jesus to you?” And they gave him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From that time on, Judas began looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to prepare the Passover meal for you?”
18 “As you go into the city,” he told them, “you will see a certain man. Tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My time has come, and I will eat the Passover meal with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus told them and prepared the Passover meal there.
20 When it was evening, Jesus sat down at the table with the Twelve. 21 While they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”
22 Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, “Am I the one, Lord?”
23 He replied, “One of you who has just eaten from this bowl with me will betray me. 24 For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!”
25 Judas, the one who would betray him, also asked, “Rabbi, am I the one?”
And Jesus told him, “You have said it.”
26 As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”
1 The Festival of Unleavened Bread, which is also called Passover, was approaching. 2 The leading priests and teachers of religious law were plotting how to kill Jesus, but they were afraid of the people’s reaction.
3 Then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve disciples, 4 and he went to the leading priests and captains of the Temple guard to discuss the best way to betray Jesus to them. 5 They were delighted, and they promised to give him money. 6 So he agreed and began looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus so they could arrest him when the crowds weren’t around.
41 Then, surrounded by the Pharisees, Jesus asked them a question: 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
21 Now Jesus was deeply troubled, and he exclaimed, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me!”
22 The disciples looked at each other, wondering whom he could mean. 23 The disciple Jesus loved was sitting next to Jesus at the table. 24 Simon Peter motioned to him to ask, “Who’s he talking about?” 25 So that disciple leaned over to Jesus and asked, “Lord, who is it?”
26 Jesus responded, “It is the one to whom I give the bread I dip in the bowl.” And when he had dipped it, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. 27 When Judas had eaten the bread, Satan entered into him. Then Jesus told him, “Hurry and do what you’re going to do.” 28 None of the others at the table knew what Jesus meant. 29 Since Judas was their treasurer, some thought Jesus was telling him to go and pay for the food or to give some money to the poor. 30 So Judas left at once, going out into the night.
31 As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. 32 And since God receives glory because of the Son, he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once.
Some Prayers to Consider:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of humility, patience and love to your servant. Grant me to see my own sin and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed from all ages to all ages. Amen
Troubled God, in every generation you call your people to contend against the brutality of sin and betrayal. Keep us steadfast even in our fear and uncertainty, that we may follow where Jesus has led the way. Amen.
My savior, do you invite me to share in the glory of the resurrection? Please stay with me as I struggle to see how accepting the crosses of my life will free me from the power of the one who wants only to destroy my love and trust in you. Help me to be humble and accepting like your son, Jesus. I want to turn to you with the same trust he had in your love. Save me, Lord. Only you can save me. Amen.
Hymns and Song Titles:
All to Jesus I Surrender
Lord, I Give You My Life
Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?
From the Inside Out
Something came along my news feed the other day proclaiming that Matthew 18:20 is one of five of the most misused verses in the New Testament by ministers. Yet, I’m not sure my father misused the passage given his particular bent that if the Bible says, and I believe it, than that settles it. Also, this verse was used as an encouragement for many evening services in which a majority of the congregation would choose not to congregate. It reads this way:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.
It is the anthem of small church gatherings everywhere. This verse out of the Gospel reminds us that the size of the gathering doesn’t matter, and that Christ is indeed with his followers regardless of the number. However, to truly read the Bible as God’s Word and strive to take it seriously, we must consider the context of Jesus’ saying here. I other words, does this verse truly apply to evening services of the church in which only a few choose to attend?
To answer this question, we must expand our quotation to the entire passage that is broken out as a paragraph for us by those who have translated and put together our bibles. Therefore, we will look at Matthew 18:15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Immediately, we should see that this instruction from Matthew really has very little to do with church events, and much more to do with church community…that is relationships among believers. It starts off…”If another believer sins against you…” and then proceeds to lay out a plan of action. We will get to the plan in a minute, but what needs to be stressed is that when a plan of action is carried out, there will be believers who will not agree with the action taken. Yet, Jesus makes a really strong statement that we must not only understand, but use it as a barometer for what is appropriate and godly for believers to engage in. Jesus says that there is a direct correlation between what is permitted and forbidden in the church, and what is permitted and forbidden in heaven. Jesus clarifies that with a serious, “I tell you the truth.” The encouragement comes to those who are trying to restore the person back to the congregation…Jesus tells them that once these steps have been taken and there has been pain, prayer, and pastoring; The end result may or may not be to the liking of the group, but Jesus is there among them.
So when times get rough and people hurt each other and it makes an impact on the church, Jesus is there is the agreement and efforts of those who have come together to help a believer in Jesus live the Christian, or heavenly Kingdom, life. Now, As far as we have come, there is a message of grace to the leaders of the church and the victims of the offense…Jesus is there with them. One of the things that must be stressed is that that dignity and harmony of the church is prioritized over the individual in sin. Jesus message is clear, persons fall into sin, but the church must be a community that confronts sin and loves these persons back to the life of righteousness. With that point made, there is a message of grace for those who would be the offender in this scenario.
If you have sinned against a fellow believer, that believer is not given license to gossip or spread information about you…that person is to come to you and tell you what has happened. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then they gather some of your friends to talk with you regarding the sin, notice that these friends serve as witnesses and not a firing squad. They listen to both sides of the dispute and provide counsel as to how this might be resolved. If that fails, then the whole church gathers to hear the dispute and if the matter is still unresolved, then someone could get removed from the community of believers because the last thing the church wants is a sinner who is unwilling to confess and humble themselves in the guidance and protection of the church. So, the message of grace is twofold in this plan of action; first, a person who has a problem with you is never grounds for your dismissal from the church because of arbitrary drama or hasty reaction and second, at any point there is a confession of sin then the matter is resolved because that is what Jesus asks of us is to simply own our sin.
You can imagine that those who are caught up in the middle of such disputes will question there actions and even begin to wonder about there prayers…because relationships in the church are sticky at times, and even brothers and sisters can have deep seated anger and resentment. That is why Jesus reminds those in the thick of things that He is there with them and that in their agreement they will find a pathway back to the Kingdom of God…a place where every citizen belongs, and a place that deserves our best efforts to be peacefully in community with each other.
So while I do not think that this verse applied directly to the small church crowds and should not be used as a slogan for a church group who is small thinking that they are doing the right thing by hosting small numbers. Jesus is in the large numbers too… I do think that this can be an encouragement for those who are motivated to help others in their discipleship, especially within a culture that puts much more emphasis on individual fulfillment than it does community engagement. The Kingdom of God is a church community, not an idealized individual progress plan. That can be found in other religions, but not the one Christ died for…Christ died for a group, not so he would be fulfilled, but so we together might find fulfillment through him in having a true and real relationship with God. So, where a few gather in the name of Jesus, God is present!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.