I was reading in Acts 7 this morning where Stephen is preaching to a very hostile crowd. If you know the story in Acts, Stephen gets stoned to death by those listening to his words, and while being stoned that Bible records that he looked up to heaven to see, “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The crowd of the high priest and synagogue attendees was so angry at Stephen that the text says they “ground their teeth” at him and were “enraged.” So, what did Stephen say? Well, there were several aspects of the old system of religion that Stephen criticized, but I think the nail in Stephen’s coffin happened when he spoke of the Temple in Jerusalem. He said this:
46 “David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who actually built it. 48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
50 Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’”
The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands… God lives in the heaven and the earth, God created his throne and God crafted his dwelling place. God lives with us, not separated from some stone barrier. …and this didn’t go over all that well, but we should understand why. In fact, that mound that still exists in Jerusalem sure does continue to get a lot of attention from religious people. Stephen tells them that they resist the Holy Spirit…that is God’s indwelling, God’s presence among his people. They resist it because they have put their faith, trust, and allegiance in the Temple.
God is bigger than that temple, and maybe we might say that God is bigger than our temples. I know we don’t have stone structures that contain God, but we all have boxes that contain God. I know how God thinks and I know how God acts. I know given a particular situation God would do this…and I know that if we don’t fully do what God wants then God will respond in this way. But Jesus changes all of that, we are talking "law" and Jesus came to SAVE…which the law only condemns.
So, let’s check our “temples” today and not try to contain the Most High in boxes created by human hands (or minds). Lord God, show us your glory as high as the heavens and may we see your throne not as a temple, box, or doctrine, but as a Kingdom where you reign and a Kingdom we live today, now, and forevermore in your presence! Amen.
I have had a few people approach me about my reactions to an article that has been making it’s way around Social Media. The blog post was by Benjamin Sledge and his title is “Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity is Actually Relevant, Okay?” So, what follows are my insights and reactions to this article…which you can read HERE.
First and foremost, I want to thank Mr. Sledge for his thought provoking blog. There is so much here that is worth considering further, which is what I plan on doing. I must confess that as a minister and preacher, I am having a harder time considering the “practical application” of Biblical texts and it is not because I cannot come up with them, but because I want to give people something they might actually consider being or doing. A fellow minister tweeted a few weeks back that preaching on the Bible is like “giving a book report on a book that no one else has really read.” That has stuck with me as much as Sledge’s remark, “It’s quite strange to expect people to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.” I often wonder how Christianity might change if the Bible was taken seriously and read by the people who claim their devotion to it. I also wonder how our study of the Bible would affect our interactions with those who don’t hold to the same belief system that Christians hold.
Don’t mishear my apprehension, I know that there are some Christians who read the Bible and try to take it seriously, but I know many more Christians who would rather assume they know it from childhood memories and one sermon a week than to actually pick it up and read it. So, I say this to reflect some concern as to the level of relevancy the Bible has for Christians before we even begin to look at the larger American culture.
When we do look at American culture, I think this article assumes an emerging correlation between the pagan Roman culture of the first century and the current American culture. This assumption exposes a division in the larger Christian landscape. I know Christians who hold to an understanding of American history and cultural development that claims the United States is a Christian nation, founded by Christian principles, and held together by Christian leaders. Yet, Sledge represents a growing group of Christians who point out that the United States has strikingly familiar parallels to Greco-Roman rule and culture, and has been that way from its conception. Perhaps a truce might be had if we acknowledge that regardless of our bent in regard to history, American culture is growing more pagan and Roman cultural practices, as described by Sledge in his article, are taking precedent over the teachings of Scripture.
Let me try to supply four observations from the article that I believe need to be addressed and corrected if the church is to be Attractive to the culture once again:
1. The relevancy of the church is found in our actions and not in our doctrines.
Ok, so before you pick up your stones to drag me out in the street, what I am claiming is that the church has high-level doctrines like God, Christ, God as creator, Humanity as the beloved creation, the Holy Spirit…etc. And the church has low-level doctrines that have developed between denominations and lead to our unique identities as sects and tribes. So often, we take our lower-level doctrines and try to show the larger culture why our distinctiveness needs to be appreciated and followed…we lead with low-level doctrines. In contrast, it is the higher-level doctrines that produce within us the ability to love, serve, give, and extend hospitality. So, as the church leaders teach us about life as a ______________ (insert denomination here)…as opposed to life as a ________________ (insert hated denomination here…the culture around us scratches their heads and continues to be lost. To seek the lost, we need to actually DO - love, give, serve, and invite - and it is the sum of these qualities found in a group of Christians taking Jesus’ life seriously that becomes attractive to others.
2. We have replaced the pursuit of faithfulness with the pursuit of fame.
Why must we use social media for every little concern we have? I must agree with Sledge that Christians on social media during an election year is one of the most Kingdom destroying activity I have ever witnessed in the American culture. It doesn’t matter who your candidate is, what side of the isle your on (if your even in the chamber), some one is going to represent Christ in a way that makes you go…WHAT!?!? But that isn’t all…what about our Christian celebrities that people flock to go hear speak at the colleges and non-profit events? I mean, what’s better than a super Christian with mega-bucks? I’ll tell you, a widow who has lost her husband and continues to visit the sick, reach out to young mothers, and attend worship services even though she doesn’t know what the internet is….because she continues to be faithful. Sledge says that churches have become bigger, but that doesn’t mean they have become better…I experience the pull and tug between being a famous minister or a faithful minister. I didn’t use an and/or there because I have a hard time understanding what a famous and faithful minister really would look like. I really wonder if anyone can really be famous and faithful…It almost seems to much for us to handle. But I do know this, my neighbor doesn’t really care how famous I am, but she does care about the respect I give her and the conversations we have…What does faithfulness look like, well, it starts by being present and paying attention to others. The famous are often absent and self-focused. Our culture needs more faithfulness.
3. In making God accessible to the peoples, we have displaced God’s holiness.
We can dress God up in skinny jeans, hand him (or her) a guitar, and request Oceans (a good song) as much as we want. But God resists being our friend and pal because God is not as we are…God’s ways are different…God’s thoughts are different…and God as the Holy One refuses relevancy to some degree. Some groups of Christians have synchronized with culture by placing persons and our lives at the center (or top) of our priorities and then they ask God to provide something good or grand for us to entertain and maybe adopt as our way of life. God is a counselor in our efforts to self-help, and this notion of God should be foreign to the Christian experience and is completely unheard of in the text of Scripture. God is Holy, and we are to live a life that is relevant to God and whether God is relevant to us depends upon our choices to put God at the center of our lives and view God as top priority. If God became less of a friend and more of a…well, God…the great “I AM” of the Old Testament who cannot be controlled or manipulated, then we would do as God wants and the life of service to God by loving and serving other would flow out of this attitude adjustment.
4. In prioritizing education through the pursuit of knowledge, we have forgotten to teach the discipline of discernment.
When I went to seminary to study ministry and theology, in my very first class I was handed a book entitled, “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” It was a brief book that I could make much more brief—the book told us to shut-up! Yeah, not that way but basically the book assumed that we would be gathering all of this knowledge and would learn new things and the author made a point to suggest that take the time to discern what was appropriate for us to pass along and what we should think about a little more before putting it out there. I think that I am smarter than the generations of old, that is I am more well read and have a more well-rounded education. I can look anything up on the internet and learn to do anything on YouTube. We know a lot…but I think we have a hard time discerning…between sources of information…between socially appropriate outlets…between private and public arenas…and so forth. I agree with Sledge that Christians need to halt the relenting pursuit of being right in favor of a pursuit of doing right.
I’m sure there is more I could have thought about, but I think the relevancy of Christianity is dependent on the relevancy the faith finds in the hearts and lives of Christian people. Which brings this to me and to you…are we part of the 70% who are culturally Christian or are we going to be the smaller group characterized by love, grace, and acceptance who live the life of Jesus?
If you grew up in an evangelistic church, or have a natural tendency to be extraverted and somewhat loud about your faith, then this verse below might come as a challenge to you and to the evangelistic movement as a whole. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:
1 Thessalonians 4:11 Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.
The first line of this passage is interesting because in the original language it reads make it your ambition, or zealous pursuit, to live a life of silence or tranquility. Most of us, whether our natural tendency is to be extra- or introverted, would be comfortable talking zealously about the things that peak our passions and we use these things to create a niche for ourselves or some sort of career for ourselves or at least a fan page or group on Facebook! But for Paul, there was something to be emulated in the life of peace, one that allowed someone to “mind their own business” and “do their own work” contributing to the life of the community.
Interestingly enough, this life of quiet confidence leads to the same result that many who stand on the street corners with a bull-horn so desperately want to see; that people take notice, the text reads, “people who are nonbelievers will respect the way you live…” maybe they will begin to ask us questions, or wonder why we are not panicking like those around us and want to know more about what gives us hope.
Now, I’m not against those who have a calling to be evangelistic and more “in your face.” There are some who have chosen to believe in Jesus because their life was interrupted, or they were confronted with the message of Jesus. However, I would also like to assert that for every person who this works for, there are many others who are negatively impacted by the same tactics. Many of the people I know who are believers, either had someone they really respected lead them to Jesus, or there was some sort of relationship that then led into faith conversations.
Another thing about this teaching from Paul to the church is very important; everyone can do this. You don’t have to be a certain type of person, have a particular set of skills, or you don’t have to feel guilty because you just can’t do what others so seemingly easily can do. All of us are asked to be an example of Christ to those who don’t believe, and the question is not a matter of if we do that, but usually it boils down to how we go about doing it. So, make it your goal to live a peaceful life with those around you through the Spirit of God, especially among your neighbors in your community. Do the work of loving your neighbors with your hands and not so much with your mouths, don’t just talk politics, service, and Jesus…but in your actions towards them live your politics, carry out your service, and be Jesus in situations you face. They will respect you, and they will respect that your happiness and peace doesn’t depend on others, or come at the expense of others.
God, help us make a lasting impact on those who have yet to believe in your son Jesus. As Francis of Assisi prayed, may we preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.
In Deuteronomy, you might pick up on a phrase that is repeated over and over, and in Deuteronomy 18, the chapter begins with it:
“18:1 Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel.”
Over and over in the book, Moses reminds the people that the tribe of Levi is different than the rest of the people. This tribe, serving as priests, are to help the people connect to God and in so doing the Bible tells us that the Levites special connection is God, not land. Now, maybe you might be saying…ok, so they don’t get land…but without land you don’t have livestock, crops, or the room to start your own business. So, the Levites are to live off of the offerings and gifts that the people bring to God. Moses says it this way in Deuteronomy 18:
“3 “These are the parts the priests may claim as their share from the cattle, sheep, and goats that the people bring as offerings: the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. 4 You must also give to the priests the first share of the grain, the new wine, the olive oil, and the wool at shearing time. 5 For the Lord your God chose the tribe of Levi out of all your tribes to minister in the Lord’s name forever.”
The priests functioned much like contemporary pastors and ministers. They were in charge of teaching the people about their relationship with God, taking care of the sanctuary and the volunteers, being an example of righteous living, and making sure the offerings given are used to God’s glory. So, for a moment let’s enter into the aged debate about ministers…
You see, there has always been some argument over whether ministers should be “of the people” meaning that the minister would work like everyone else and then stand to preach and teach as one of them each Sunday (or appropriated time), or whether ministers should be somewhat separated from the people (mostly by education and lifestyle) and then preach and teach as somewhat of an expert. So, while this dichotomy is somewhat simplistic and there are degrees of everything in the middle…here’s what I’m getting at.
Those who want a minister to work often look to Paul who was a tentmaker, but Paul was more of a church planter and missionary that moved around (hence the journeys).
Those who want ministers who are there to serve the congregation and are available to the people often go back to the Levitical priesthood, although we must admit there are differences that need to be explored (but not now, not here).
So, most congregations I am connected with want ministers who are available to them, show them how to live while teaching and preaching, and often they want a person who is CALLED by God to minister to and with their church. If this is your church, then what you want is not a Paul, but a Priest in the since of our comparison above. So, you have a family (or 8) working for your church, let’s get down to it now!
From the congregational perspective, the minister is dependent upon your support and care. It’s not just about a paycheck, but the local minister may have needs that you can help with and I think there is biblical proof that the congregation is required by God to help, support, and care for the one (or 8) called by God to minister among this people.
From the ministerial perspective, this text reminds me that I have sacrificed the land to have the Lord as a special possession, so while others work in the land I have the responsibility to be about the Lord’s work. And while I will call the congregation to help me in that, I should be leading through my example of being in service to the Lord in everything. (Yes, there are boundaries but again, not for today’s musings!) Ministers are dependent upon the Lord, and they are dependent upon the people to provide for them.
From this passage, I believe that ministers who have to work second jobs or sometimes third jobs to make ends meet are not given the opportunity to learn the dependence talked about in this passage. As Paul would say, “And when I was with you and didn’t have enough to live on, I did not become a financial burden to anyone.” (2 Cor 11:9) Of course, if you read the passage Paul is rebuking the church for not being supportive and allowing other churches to give so that he could preach to them…Ouch! So, even Paul had some notion of the cost associated with ministry.
I think our doctrine of self-sufficiency sometimes gets in the way of God’s formation through community…which is found in both the Old and New Testaments. The role and care of our ministers, or divinely appointed servants, is a two way street…for they are there to nurture us, challenge us, and provide through crisis…and we are there for them. Ministers have sacrificed opportunities to serve your church, and so the congregation must realize and respond to them in gratitude for their service. That is the exchange God set up a long time ago…and we should continue to consider it worth preserving.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.