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.
You might recall Jesus quoting from the prophet Isaiah when confronted abut why his disciples don’t practice the ceremonial tradition of washing their hands before a meal. The quote comes from Isaiah 29:13 and is a charge that God has against his people, Israel:
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
There are a couple of things that strike me in this passage. First, the obvious is that these people have learned to say the right things, project holy things on the outside…but their hearts are far from God. Therefore, there is little to no relationship with the Lord, they just listen to the holy words and memorize them. They sing the songs they know and go through the rituals, but they do not KNOW God. Second, God charges that the fear they are to have, due to the closeness of the relationship has also been cheapened. This “fear of the Lord” is now something that is taught. Perhaps it is practiced and perfected, and then performed, but the fear of the Lord is not authentic; something that would grow out of real relationship with the Lord.
So, the very things and people God set up to draw his people closer and provide them with a healthy “fear of the Lord” has become a barrier to authentic faith. Now, when we see the “fear of the Lord” we must understand God’s holiness and God’s care to truly engage this phrase. Fear can mean respect, yes, but with the Lord it is that understanding that the holy God who has every right to destroy us and the evil of the world has invited into relationship to care for us. This is more than respect, but the awe and wonder of how this is possible mixed with the responsibility to live in thankfulness for this opportunity.
What Jesus doesn’t share with the Pharisees is the verse a few passages down. Listen to the words of Isiah 29:16 =
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
I sometimes wonder if in our construed way of making God our divine servant who exists to make us happy and content, if we have indeed turned things upside-down. You see, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders made the mistake that God served them, and I think that Christians have bought into a popular version of American Christianity that does the same thing. How can the clay regard the potter as the clay?
I must admit that it is easier for me to say the Christian things and read the Christian book than it is for me to spend time with God, walk with God, and relate to God. It is also easier to think that God wants me to be happy than it is to live as if the purpose of my existence is to make God happy. God’s priorities are not my priorities, and God’s happiness is not even close to the things that make me happy. This is why we are asked to follow Jesus and learn to be disciples of Jesus; because it was his life, not ours or the Jews or anyone else, that truly glorified God…that is “made God happy.”
So, I want God to please remind me that I am clay and you are the Creating Potter. Help me walk with you and talk with you and never substitute what I’m taught about you with who you are in my life. Help me to bring something that is of worth as I worship you with my life that you may be honored by my life…up close…not from a distance.
In Hebrews 6, the letter’s writers show a deep concern for the recipients. Let’s start reading at verse 9b:
We are confident that you are meant for better things, things that come with salvation. 10 For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do. 11 Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. 12 Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent. Instead, you will follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises because of their faith and endurance.
I can see myself having this conversation with several persons who I want to encourage and inspire to continue in their faith and in their growth. The idea expressed is one that we all try to live…keep on! We keep on in faith so that we will make certain that for which we hope. It is also a safe guard because the text says that when we keep on then we don’t become “dull and indifferent.” Instead of being like that we “follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises.” Ok, this sounds like what I want to be, and how I want to inspire others…but Hebrews also provides the negative side of this…the dull and indifferent side. Let’s read in Hebrews 6:4
4 For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened—those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come— 6 and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.
Wait…impossible! I thought nothing was impossible for God? Imagine if you would for a moment that by chance there is someone who has been enlightened, who has experienced the good things of heaven, who has shared in the sweet fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and who has even tasted the goodness of God…that person should be growing and loving and hoping and GOING!
But then we get the kick to the stomach… “who then turns away from God.” So, despite all those things listed above, this person chooses to turn away! And then the Hebrew writer repeats it, “It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance…” How can this be, are we just to despair and morn our loss?
The Hebrew letter gives us an example, let’s read from chapter 6:7
7 When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing. 8 But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it.
When that which comes from heaven is “soaked up” then it produces good crops, and when the things from heaven are not soaked up, then the crops don’t grow and all that is left is thorns and thistles…and so the farmer condemns and burns the field. OUCH!
Now, it is important to be reminded what the basis of this conversation is, which is the opening verses of Hebrews 6:
1 So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds[a] and placing our faith in God.
So, this is more a call to grow in maturity and less a guide on how to respond to those who turn away from God. However, there are two very clear lessons to be learned. First, we all want to be gardens that produce something good for our farmer God. To do that we need to soak in the gifts of heaven and grow into something God can USE! Second, there are those who grow in a different way in that they grow dull and indifferent and become USELESS to the farmer because their gardens are simply full of thorns and thistles. Thus, given the same opportunities to experience, taste, and grow…they reject God.
This text is clearly urging us to not grow dull and indifferent, but to grow mature and wise. No one wants to plant a useless garden…including God.
Have you ever considered the teaching of Jesus that goes something like this: God, please forgive me of the things I do wrong in the same way that I forgive those who do me wrong. When Jesus is talking on the mountain, he teaches us how to pray, and within that famous Lord’s Prayer we are challenged by these words:
6:12 and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
As we have… (seems to indicate that God acts in reaction to our action doesn’t it!). But perhaps Jesus is actually saying the opposite here, right? That because of the great love that has been poured out by God, that foundation of forgiveness welcomes us to do the same to those who have hurt us, like God has done to those who have hurt Him. However, Matthew returns to this teaching in chapter 18, and it is right after the passage about taking reconciliation seriously…
Peter wants to know how many times it is appropriate to forgive someone who has hurt you, or sinned against you. Jesus responds with his famous, “Not seven times, by seventy times seven times.” Some interpretations will read 77 times, but let’s face it…it was a lot more than Peter had in mind (and way more than we typically think we need to practice). Jesus’ answer is one thing, but the story Jesus tells to explain his answer elaborates on this teaching:
Jesus starts off by saying that the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to this situation that is about to unfold. So, we need to keep this in mind. A king is calling his debtors and collecting the money borrowed from him. A man owes the king millions of dollars, which he couldn’t pay back. So, the king ordered that all he had be sold, including his family, to pay for his debt. But the man begged the king for more time to pay it…and the king released the man and FORGAVE the debt!
So the man left the presence of the king a debt free man and at once went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. The man grabbed his fellow man by the throat and demanded to be paid immediately. The fellow servant begged for patience and more time, but the man would not extend any grace to the fellow servant. The debtor was placed in prison.
Well, word reached the king and the king was not happy. The king called in the servant who had been forgiven and said to him, “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” The servant went to prison.
Jesus summarizes the story by saying this: 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
How can we accept the forgiveness of God and not extent forgiveness to our own enemies? Why do we expect God to treat us better than we treat our fellow brothers and sisters? God’s grace and forgiveness make up the foundation of our grace and forgiveness. If we fail to offer it and practice it, then God will remove the foundation from its place, and we are left building our lives on something else…achievement, perfectionism, legalism, superiority…and needless to say that our efforts to build on these other,or foreign, foundations is not the building of the Kingdom of God.
Let us practice forgiveness and extend grace, so that God’s grace and forgiveness may be fully accepted and appreciated in our lives.
We read in Exodus 3 that Moses wasn’t too sure about God’s section of him as savior of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Remember that Moses had been rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter as a baby and brought up in the very house of Pharaoh. Remember also that Moses fled the land of Egypt after killing an Egyptian in response to rough treatment of a Hebrew slave. In that running, Moses “stumbled” upon a well and met up with a priest of the most high God, received one of his daughters as a wife, and took care of sheep in the wilderness.
Here is how the interaction between God and Moses plays out in the story:
3:9 Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. 10 Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses protested to God, “Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 God answered, “I will be with you. And this is your sign that I am the one who has sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this very mountain.” 13 But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?” 14 God replied to Moses, “I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent me to you.” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.
This is my eternal name,
my name to remember for all generations.
16 “Now go and call together all the elders of Israel. Tell them, ‘Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—has appeared to me. He told me, “I have been watching closely, and I see how the Egyptians are treating you. 17 I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt.
You see, Moses has a crisis of identity. In fact, let me argue that Moses has had this crisis since the time he was born. Is Moses a Hebrew or an Egyptian? Is Moses a grandson of the King or a fleeing murderer? Is Moses a city boy or a wilderness wanderer? Who does Moses worship as god? Is Moses rich or poor? Strong or weak? Who is Moses?
On the other hand, God does not have an identity crisis…the very name Yahweh means “I am who I am” and while Moses can’t seem to figure out what qualifies him for this type of service, God is convinced that Moses is the man to represent Him in Egypt against Pharaoh and all of the other gods that reign in the land.
The key to this whole weird meeting between Yahweh and Moses…God tells Moses that, “I will be with you.” God even helps him by reassuring Moses that when it is all done, he will lead the people to worship at this very mountain they are conversing on right now. While we may not be called to rescue an entire people from the hands of powerful oppression, and while we may have our own identity problems…God’s purpose for you always comes with the assurance of God’s presence to complete the work God has for us to do. And when our identity is a point of confusion in our lives, God’s identity is a refuge to which we can run and regain ourselves through pursuing God’s presence with us.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.