Sunday, March 16, 2014

Greatest love? Laying down your life for your friend... (John 15:12-17)

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another."
(John 15:12-17; ESV)
Yesterday we had a rich time looking at God's word, in preparation for small group bible studies at an upcoming camp. Looking together at John 15:1-17, one of the people shared about how this was a new and striking thought, that we are not just servants of Jesus, but also friends of Jesus. And we pondered then about how that changes things, if we think of ourselves as Jesus' friends?

As Jesus is about to go and die for his friends, he tells the disciples, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" immediately followed by "You are my friends if you do what I command you." At one level, we can understand this in helping us answer the question, "Who are the people that Jesus dies for, who are his friends?" They are the ones who do what he says, they are the ones who love one another. So Christians should show love to one another, and that's how they show themselves to be Christ's disciples, and Jesus' friends.

But then Jesus also said to love one another "as I have loved you". How did Jesus love? He died for his friends. Are the other disciples my friends too? Am I ready to lay down my life for them? Or even more to the point, is Jesus my friend? Am I ready to lay down my life for my friend Jesus? As Jesus spoke these words to his friends, he knew not only that he was going to die soon for them, but he also knew that it wouldn't be long before most (perhaps not John), would also have to die for him (cf John 15:18-21). And certainly all would suffer for him, at the hands of others, for the sake of Christ, and Christ's body, the church.

Now we should well come to the point where we also are ready to say, "Yes, I will lay down my life for my friend Jesus". But perhaps (for some of us) we may take comfort in the fact that not many of us have to physically die for Jesus' sake, or even barely suffer physically, and will probably just die of old age. Putting our life on the line for Jesus isn't really an everyday thing for many of us. Hmm. Or maybe it is.

The thought occurred to us yesterday, maybe dying for Jesus is an every day thing. What if Jesus also means that dying for him means dying to self and doing what Jesus commands? What if we should look at obedience from a different perspective, not just as master and servant, but also from the perspective of being Jesus' friend. Are we ready to die to self, putting away our own desires and dreams, or our own pleasures and passions, because we love our friend, Jesus? Will we love one another, because we are ready to die to self out of our great love for our friend Jesus, who died for us?

A servant may die for his master because he has to. But he may not want to. A friend wants to die for the friend he loves. Do I want to die to self every day, because I love my friend Jesus? How great is my love for Jesus?

This simple song by Robin Mark is one of my favourites:
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
For it's only in Your will that I am free,
For it's only in Your will that I am free,
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.

Jesus as Message, Model and Motive (Titus 2-3)

For the last ten years or so, I have had the privilege of reading through the Bible each week with people whose first language isn't English, many of them not Christians and little exposed to the Scriptures. Through their questions, with fresh views of the texts, perhaps over the years I have learnt more than they did!

Most of the time we read through the four Gospels. And I am very glad to have "forced" myself into fresh exposure to Jesus. One of the things that has struck me again and again in Jesus' teaching, is that when it looks like he is telling others what they should do, at the same time, perhaps even more so, he is telling others what he does and will do. Whether it is in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, or the in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, etc.

In preparing for a recent sermon on Titus, this idea struck me freshly. That Jesus is not only the message to us, not only the motivation for us to do what he said, but he is also the model.

As I was trying to read through the text in Greek, one thing that stood out was the correspondence between what Paul said God did, and what he calls us to do and desires for us. Specifically how God was abundantly good to all people ("to all men", Titus 2:11; "the love of God our Saviour toward man", Titus 3:4), and he calls us to do good for the benefit of all people ("showing all humility to all men", Titus 3:2; "good and profitable unto men", Titus 3:8). Here, what God did was not only the message of the gospel which motivates us to do what he asks of us in subsequent commands, at the same time, the message is also the model of what he wants us to do.

Jesus is the message, because what who is is and what he did is the content of our trust and belief as Christians. Jesus is the model, because he also sets the example and shows us what it looks like to live out that belief. Jesus is the motive, because at the same time he is the reason, when we understand his love to us, we want to live that different way, and in what he did we discover the power to enable us to put sin to death and live the resurrection life.

We can sometimes argue in principle about whether it is necessary for a leader to lead by example, or the led just need to do what is said because the leader has that authority. But there can be no doubt that God sets a powerful precedent, by putting forth the gospel of Jesus Christ, as message, model and motive, all in one.

Who is the good Samaritan? (Tullian Tchividjian and the Good Samaritan)

As has become something of a habit, I was browsing through the Gospel Coalition site's "Right Now" list of links. I came across Tullian Tchividjian's blog post on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). His conclusion was, "Yes, Jesus and Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan". Like many others, I couldn't really buy it.

This is what I said on a friend's Facebook account when they linked to the article:
"As with many things, I think it is a both/and and not either/or situation. Yes, I think when Jesus speaks parables like this, he is in a purposeful way calling attention to himself and what he does and will do. But I don't think it is only as a substitute or representative. He is also the example. When he says to "go and do likewise", it is not only to expose sin, by some kind of confronting dead end, but it is also to point us in the right direction (cf Calvin's third use of the Law). Sometimes we can over-theologise and over-absolutise etc. I suspect Pastor Tullian's theology is getting in the road of his exegesis..."
Sometimes we can try to be too clever, and miss the obvious. Sometimes we can also be too tunnel-visioned or too monochromatic about seeing Jesus in everything. Sometimes we can be so afraid of legalism and moralism etc, that we are allergic to telling ourselves to "be careful to maintain good works" (Titus 3:8).

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Circumcision of Correct Theology

You who boast in the law dishonour God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:23-29; ESV)
As I was reading Paul's words from Romans 2 (above), and thinking about how it can play out today, it occurred to me that theological correctness can be a kind of circumcision for one kind of modern day "Judaizers".

Tom Wright has used the word "badge" to talk about the way the Jews viewed circumcision (and other works of the Law/Torah, and even just the possession of the Law/Torah, if memory serves me right). This is a helpful analogy. Perhaps more in the past, but badges could serve as proud symbols of membership of your particular club. For some church members, official name tags function as badges of membership. And the thing is, there can be a subtle blurring, where the badge of membership becomes the assurance of membership (although I suppose there is something in the nature of Biblical badges as not only signs, but also seals). Worse though, is when the assurance rests entirely in the wearing of the badge, and it is forgotten that the badge is only a token, when the badge is no longer a sign pointing to something else, but assumes all the substance of assurance. I may not have any real relationships with others in the church, I may only rarely attend the various gatherings of the church, I may never represent the church in the world, but I still have the name tag, and if I'm wearing it, no-one better try and tell me that I'm not a member of the church!

Sometimes I think our confessions to theological correctness become a badge carrying too much weight, causing too much boasting. Sometimes the theological orthodoxy of our doctrinal statements, and of our confessed allegiances (as Calvinist, Evangelical, Reformed or whatever), becomes the substance of our assurance of membership in Christ, even if that alone is the bulk of the substance of that assurance. What if we have the purest summary of the gospel in our official confession, but we never really engage with others to communicate the gospel to them? What if we clearly teach predestination and grace, and are notoriously proud or arrogant as Christians? What if our stated core values proclaim the love of God and reconciliation and forgiveness in Christ, but we are always divisive and fault-finding? "For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision." Our theological badge indeed is of value if we live out our theology. But if our theological confessions are only a badge, maybe there is little value in wearing it. And perhaps we may also see that some others who don't wear the same badge, actually do better at living out the theology. May our praise not be from man but from God.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How to respond to sin in the church?

If we check in with reality, we know that sin is always going to occur in the church, until Jesus returns, the resurrection comes, and we sin no more. The New Testament is clear about this, and so is personal experience. This will especially be true if evangelism is going well, and people are being converted out of all sorts of backgrounds. Then you can be sure that the church is going to be confronted with all sorts of uncomfortable situations!

So how do we respond to sin in the church? Especially, what do we do when there is something that cannot - and perhaps should not - be hidden? Perhaps a church member will be convicted of a crime. Perhaps an ugly fight breaks out in a church meeting. Perhaps some gossip is spreading around Facebook for too many to see. The scenarios can be multiplied.

As I was grappling with this, I came up with the following list of "in principle" considerations and questions to ask...
  1. All sin is not the same. It is a common mistake that we think all sin is the same. All sin is sin, but not all sin is the same. In the OT, some sins (eg sexual ones, rebellion against parents, idolatry) required the death penalty, others did not. Jesus spoke about how some would receive more severe judgement than others (eg Mark 12:40, Matthew 11:20-24; cf  Hebrews 10:29). Also, in the NT not all sins are given the same “coverage” (I haven’t checked the stats, but I suspect sexual sin gets comparatively a lot of “air time”).
  2. Helping the individual. Is the sinning individual being helped as best as possible? The first step of course is admission of sin. Is there already personal repentance and forgiveness, or not? Are we satisfied there is appropriate understanding of sin and repenting of sin? Are they assured of forgiveness? 1 John 1:9, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 etc. Are there consequences of sin that we need to help work through (eg pregnancy, civil law issues)? Is there unrepentance that needs discipline? We also need to be careful so as not to cause unnecessary suffering to the repentant and forgiven individual.
  3. Helping the community. Biblical Christianity is not only individualistic, but it is community-oriented, as a family. Are there community needs that have to be addressed? What about gossip (about the sinning individual, or against the leadership, etc)? Will there be significant temptation of others to sin in the same way or to see sin as condoned (cf 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, 1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Corinthians 2:11, Ephesians 4:27)? How will the community view the sinning individual, and how will that one feel in their presence (cf 2 Corinthians 2:6-11)? How does it affect the other congregations in the same church or denomination?
  4. Leadership. How does the eldership take the lead in such situations? Do we need to make use of the “keys of the kingdom”, whether to forgive or exclude (cf Matthew 16:19, 18:18)? What are responsibilities and privileges as Christ’s under-shepherds?
  5. Blamelessness/Fear of the LORD. Not about being sinless or perfectionism. Another important Scriptural principle is that Christians need to not only do what is right, but they have to be seen to be doing what is right, so as to be without blame (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:20-21; Philippians 2:15; 1 Timothy 3:7). A key witness of the church is not just in doing what is right, but in how we handle it when we fail. This is not so much about our personal shame and honour, as how it reflects upon the name of the LORD, and the fear of him (cf 2 Samuel 12:14). Also, in all this, in our motives etc we need to maintain a fear of the LORD and not a fear of men.
  6. Culture. How does our culture view the issue? Are there cultural expectations that need to be addressed, or cultural norms that need to be countered?
  7. Pastoral Opportunity. Most (all?) of the NT epistles are occasioned by some problem in the church. Those problems were a pastoral opportunity that became a public teaching legacy to benefit the whole church for every generation to come. Is there a pastoral teaching opportunity that we need to take hold of?
  8. Who needs to know? There are complexities relating to members and non-members (we may even have many non-members who are active and even leaders). And even with regard to new people, there are two perspectives. On the one hand, it may not be their business, or they may be put off by hearing. On the other hand, perhaps they need to know what Christianity is really like, and how the church works. Also, is it a private sin, that everyone doesn't need to know about, or something everyone knows about already?
If the leadership comes to a point where something needs to be said, what sort of things should be said? Here are some general suggestions:
  • Clear acknowledgement of the reality of ongoing sin in the lives of Christians. (Let's not pretend it doesn't happen.)
  • Clear position against sin, including the need for discipline if required. (Let's also not pretend it never needs to happen either. And let us never take delight in it when it does.)
  • Clear position of free and full forgiveness and reconciliation and acceptance of the repentant sinner.
  • A call to support a repentant sinner however we can as they work through the consequences of their sin.
  • A call to support each other in the face of temptation (especially remembering others who might be tempted to fall into similar sin).
  • Warnings against gossip etc.
  • An offer from the leadership to help where possible with the general ongoing problem of sin (including admission of our own weaknesses and failings).