What does love DO?

LOVEDOESNote to the reader: I preached this sermon at the Upstate New York District Family Camp, on Sunday, July 3. Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.

Text: Hebrews 13:1-16

Hebrews is an amazing book! It took a long time for the church to give it her stamp of approval, mainly because we’re not sure who wrote it. But one thing is certain: We sense in it the voice of the Lord.

Chapters 1-10 explain the high priestly ministry of Christ. We see how Jesus made atonement for our sins as God’s perfect sacrifice. Now chapters 11, 12, & 13 make some practical applications to life. In view of the great sacrifice for sin, the towering Cross of Christ, how shall we live?

Hebrews 13:1 sets the tone for the rest of the chapter:

Keep loving each other like family (CEB).

Love is one of the most overworked words in the English language. Still, it is the supporting beam that holds up the whole house of Christianity. Remove that beam, and the whole structure comes crashing down. Jesus in Mark 12 even summarized all the law and the prophets with two Great Commandments:

  1. Love God;
  2. Love others.

John Wesley with his brother, Charles, was the co-founder of the 18th century Methodist movement. If Phineas Bresee was our spiritual father, as Nazarenes, then Wesley was our spiritual grandfather. Here’s what he had to say about love:

How far is love…to be preferred before truth itself without love? We may die without the knowledge of many truths and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels.

A few years ago, Bob Goff wrote a book entitled Love Does. It’s not enough to give an abstract definition of love. We understand what love is when we look at at what love does. Hebrews 13 may be understood as a long answer to a simple question:

What does love DO?

And to that question, I see in vv. 1-16 at least 4 answers:

  1. Love welcomes.
  2. Love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated.
  3. Love lives simply.
  4. Love sacrifices.

LOVE WELCOMES

First, love welcomes. Let’s read v. 2 again: “Don’t neglect to open your home to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”

When we first arrived in Kenya, one of the first words we learned in Swahili was the word for “welcome” – karibu, or (in the plural) karibuni.  It literally means “come close.” The writer to the Hebrews is saying: Love welcomes. He’s reminding us that the people of God are radically hospitable, that we are a “come close” people.

Verse 2 begins by saying that being a “come close” people includes being in each others’  homes. Back in 1986, Amy and I were in Kansas City while I attended seminary. Sunday night was an important service in the life of our church because we got to know each other more informally. Sue (not her real name) was one of our close friends. I remember when 30 minutes after the service people were still visiting and laughing. The janitor needed to lock up, so Sue announced lightheartedly: “Go home, people! You do have homes?” In fact, we did, and often after Sunday morning church, we invited others over for dinner, or they invited us. Sometimes it was Sunday evening, and we’d play a game or watch a movie together, in our homes.

Have we gotten out of the habit of home fellowship? Verse 2 reminds us: “Don’t neglect to open up your home to guests…” What will that look like as individuals, as churches, as a nation? What opportunities to reach people for Christ is God sending right to our doorstep, people from other countries, moving in right across the street?

I graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in 1985 but walked the neighborhood in Wollaston (Massachusetts) once again last Tuesday. Wollaston Church of the Nazarene does not need to send missionaries to China. God has already sent a bunch of Chinese to Wollaston! The “mission field” has come to us. They own restaurants, real estate agencies, and laundromats. They send their children to the public schools. I wonder: Are we saying to the Chinese in Wollaston or those of other nationalities “Karibuni” – come close – or are we saying “go away”? The first lesson from Hebrews 13 is: LOVE WELCOMES.

Continue reading

Taking a break

pause-buttonDear “Theology in Overalls” subscribers and readers –

Life is changing!

On August 1, my wife, Amy, and I will head to Nairobi, where we will take up positions at Africa Nazarene University. We’re excited about this new turn in the road and what God has in-store for us.

Meanwhile, I have three major academic publishing projects (with deadlines) that are demanding my attention.

Between now and the end of 2016, I’m placing this blog on ice. In early 2017, I’ll evaluate whether my time commitments will allow me to restart.

Twice per month (on the 15th and 30th), I’ll post up some “best of TIO” columns from my more than 3 years of archival material.

Thank you for having so faithfully read TIO.

Together on the journey,

Greg

Blueberry pie time

Greg_pieSometimes, you just have to take a break from theology. Blueberry pie is as good (and delicious) an excuse as any!

Baking is relaxing and scratches my creativity itch. I used to be totally nervous that I would add a little bit too much of an ingredient and ruin the whole thing. Now, I’m much more go-with-the-flow. It’s tough to mess things up irretrievably.

Maybe there’s a spiritual application there…

We come to God all nervous, thinking we’ve totally messed things up, and God says: “It’s not so bad.” Then he adds the right proportion of ingredients we needed to balance things out. The end result? Delicious.

To my regular readers…

Sorry things have been a bit quiet here at “Theology in Overalls” lately. Amy and I are only one week away from the movers coming, boxing up our belongings and shipping them to Africa Nazarene University in Nairobi. We arrive there in early August to begin our new teaching (Greg) and editing (Amy) assignments. These have been chocked-full days, especially since we also have a region-wide conference for our Nazarene educators sandwiched in-between, plus two months in the U.S. on home assignment (deputation) during June and July…good but hectic times.

On the other hand, I have been writing. Just 2 weeks ago, I sent off a short manuscript to a publisher, and should know within a few weeks whether it will be green-lighted. Topic? Ecclesiology. We’ll see…

Thanks for reading TIO. May Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shower you and yours today with the divine presence.

An address to the graduates of NTC and NTCCA

Greg_grad_NTCI was honored to deliver this address to the graduates of Nazarene Theological College (South Africa) on April 23, 2016 and the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on May 7, 2016.

———————————–

WE ARE GATHERED TODAY in this place for a celebration. During these moments together, we pause to thank the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for his grace upon the lives of these graduates. In one way, today marks an ending, the finish line for a race that these women and men have been running, some for as long as the past 3 years. Graduates, as you cross that finish line this morning, I add my voice to the chorus of voices and say: “Congratulations! Well-done.”

Yet if today is an ending, in another more important way, it is also a beginning, or – to use the traditional word for a graduation ceremony – a commencement. It is the start of the rest of your life as those who seek to be ordained ministers, leading the flock of God in one capacity or another. At such a high and holy moment, what would our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, be pleased for us to consider?

Because this is a graduation address and not a sermon, I will not take a single biblical text and expound it. That is an essential skill for a preacher and one that your teachers have taught you well. But like a preacher often does, allow me to give you a Trinity of ideas, 3 words of advice as you either launch out in ministry or else continue in that path:

1) Defend the flock fiercely;

2) Hold your position lightly;

3) Cling to Jesus tightly. Continue reading

Work with the end in mind

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“WORK WITH THE END IN MIND”

Rev. 2:18-29

I.  INTRODUCTION

Eric, a first year college student, moved into the dormitory. Once he had arranged his things inside his room, he cut a large golden letter “V” out of paper and posted it on his door. Others often would ask what the “V” meant, but Eric never would say. When his friends went out to party, he instead spent long hours in the library. He made friends for sure, but he kept his priorities straight. The four years passed quickly, and graduation day came. The Vice Chancellor of the school introduced him as the valedictorian. Eric came to the podium, then opened up his folder. Carefully, he took out what was inside. With a huge smile on his face, he held it up a large golden “V” as his classmates burst into applause.

Eric is a good example of what Steven Covey, the leadership guru, identified as one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here it is: WORK WITH THE END IN MIND. And that’s exactly how our passage today is structured. Revelation 2:26-29 is a description of the golden letter “V,” a picture of the conqueror, the overcomer, the victor. God desires a wonderful outcome for each of us and in Jesus’ words to the church in Thyatira we find solid advice on how best to work with the end (or the goal) in mind. Allow me to paraphrase that advice as follows:

  1. Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.
  2. Avoid pitfalls.
  3. Persevere!

II. CELEBRATE AND KEEP DOING WHAT IS WORKING WELL

In Rev. 2:18, the Son of God, Christ himself – whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet like burnished bronze – congratulates the church in Thyatira.

That’s a lesson in and of itself. It seems like if you steal something or shoot somebody, you get mentioned in the news. How often, though, do we as a church celebrate the achievements of our own people? Maybe one of our children won a dance contest. Celebrate it! Or perhaps one of our brothers got a promotion at work. Can we celebrate that? There are dozens of good things, wholesome achievements that fly under the radar. Maybe we don’t know about them, or maybe we do, but do we praise God for what he is allowing us to achieve both as a church and as individuals in the church?

Jesus says in verse 19: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Those are high words of praise! Who at the end of their life when the believers gather for the funeral would not want that kind of praise?

“Sister so-and-so was loving and faithful.”

“Brother so-and-so served us well and didn’t quit.”

In the same way, take inventory of your life. What are you doing well? Are you a good provider, showing up at work on-time and giving your best to your employer? Then you need to tell your spouse: “Good job! Keep up the good work.” Maybe your children used to leave their toys lying around the house, to the point where they were a hazard. But now, they’re doing better. Or maybe last term they had a “D” on their report card but this time they raised it to be “B.” That’s worth celebrating. Perhaps someone at school said a very hurtful thing to your daughter, but instead of getting bitter, she prayed and God helped her forgive them. Parents, take a minute to celebrate your daughter’s forgiving heart. It will serve them well throughout life.

It’s important to identify what we’re doing well. Several times, I’ve taught a course on preaching. One student would preach and the others would have a handout where they could write comments. After the sermon, no matter how poor, we would always before suggesting improvements take time to affirm the things the preacher had done right. Perhaps they had lots of zeal when preaching. We affirmed that. Or maybe the volume was plenty high so that everyone could clearly hear what was being said. We affirmed that, too. It was important that we sincerely praised what was worthy of praise.

God looks at you, my brother, my sister, and God sees lots to praise. You are making spiritual progress! Celebrate that in yourself and celebrate that in others.

Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.

Continue reading

Church of darkness or church of light?

squeers

Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

hathaway

Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
uncle

Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator

  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

No resurrection? No Christianity

sproutI like Good Friday. There’s something about the love of God that you can’t miss when you look at the Cross.

Last week, I entitled my blog: “No Cross? No Christianity.”

But let’s imagine that Jesus had died but not risen. Would Christianity even exist?

The Apostle Paul didn’t think so. Writing to the Corinthians, he insisted:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV).

No resurrection? No Christianity.

Pondering the resurrection yields many truths. Here are a few:

1. Resurrection reminds us that “good” and “evil” are not to be confused.

People looked at the life of Jesus Christ and saw the loving goodness of God. Yet a handful of religious leaders refused to acknowledge that goodness. Instead, they called it evil and nailed it to a Cross.

God will not tolerate calling what is good, evil. That was the essential point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27b). God had vindicated Jesus, the righteous one.

Good is good and evil is evil. The resurrection is God’s warning to not confuse the two.

2. Resurrection affirms that our bodies are to be joyfully celebrated.

Gnostics taught that only spirit is pure; matter – including our bodies – is corrupt and must merely be endured. Resurrection, on the other hand, reminds us that our bodies are good creations of a good God;  they are to be celebrated! In fact, our bodies are so important that God will one day give them back to us in new-and-improved form. Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of the resurrection of all (John 5:28-29). The joys of this life are bodily joys. They will be restored in the Kingdom of Heaven.

3. Resurrection is the promise that God will one day right all wrongs.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Theologians have sometimes solved the riddle by either claiming that God is not all good or that God is not all powerful. Both of these solutions fail to satisfy because they leave out Christ, more specifically the Cross, the Empty Tomb and the Second Coming.

There is no greater example of a “bad thing” happening to a “good person” than when the religious leaders had Jesus crucified. Sometimes we forget that the story doesn’t end with the resurrection. The end of the story is the return of Christ! It is only then that the dead are raised and final judgment takes place (2 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The resurrection of Jesus is a past event but one that points us forward. Because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Because God through a specific resurrection righted the terrible wrong done to his Son, so we believe that God will one day through a general resurrection right the wrongs suffered by many across human history.

Summing it all up

Resurrection Sunday is indispensable to the Christian faith. No resurrection? No Christianity. Good and evil are not to be confused. Further, we celebrate our bodies as God’s good creation here on earth and – one day – his new creation in the Kingdom of Heaven. And while we mourn that evil can triumph over good in this life, the resurrection teaches us that God will one day set things straight.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.

——-

Image credit: HDWYN.com