Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Advertisements

Heaven isn’t enough

heavenWhy did Jesus die on the cross?

The tendency over the past 50 years in some Christian circles has been to say:

Jesus died on the cross so we could go to heaven.

The epitome of this approach was an evangelism strategy developed by the Reverend D. James Kennedy, pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In home visits, church members would ask prospects: “Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?”

At Seminary, we learned this method in a slightly modified form. However, it has always seemed incomplete to those coming from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective. In Matthew 28:16-20, the passage commonly called the “Great Commission,” Jesus outlined our mission not as helping people make sure their ticket is punched for the heavenly bus ride. Rather, it is a call for people to follow Jesus in the here-and-now:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).

Common Evangelical parlance says that we must “get saved.” Strangely, there is often little mention of this in relationship to following Jesus. An experience of praying a “sinner’s prayer” becomes the be-all and end-all of our interaction with individuals. Discipleship – the act of following Jesus and growing in holiness – seems to be relegated to an optional activity. To this, Gregory Boyd responds:

To place faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, therefore, is inseparable from the pledge to live faithfully as a disciple of Christ.

Even this needs more clarity, for a decision to “be saved” is a decision to turn our backs on wrongdoing and to follow Jesus together. The Great Commission is explicit at this point since disciples are to be baptized, a sign of our abandonment of evil ways and our initiation into the church. In meeting together we find strength and mutual encouragement. An ember separated from the fire soon grows cold,  but when left piled up with other embers keeps glowing and producing warmth. It is together that we can learn to obey all that Christ commanded, in love holding each other accountable.

But let’s return to the original question: Why did Jesus die on the cross?

We’ve seen so far that the answer “so that we could go to heaven” is inadequate in that is skips over the crucial notion of discipleship. It neglects to mention that our one day being with Jesus in heaven will be because we’ve followed him there first.

A better answer to the question would be:

Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

houston

In the film, Apollo 13, the astronaut character played by Tom Hanks radios back to earth: “Houston, we have a problem.” In the same way, the Bible teaches that each of us has a problem, and that problem is sin. Sins are the evil actions we commit that estrange us from God. These acts of disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4) set us on a path that ultimately leads to our destruction (Romans 6:23). To follow the path of sin is to follow what Jesus called the “broad path” (Matthew 7:13). On the other hand, God gives us the power to choose to follow Christ. A decision to follow him is a decision – by God’s help – to turn away from the path of destruction and take another path, a narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).

When the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child, the angel told Mary what name to give the newborn. He was to be called Jesus, derived from the Hebrew word Yeshua (salvation). And what would Jesus’ mission on earth be? He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, KJV).

These days some want to rewrite Matthew 1:21 to say that Jesus will save his people not from their sins but in their sins. It is like we believe that since Jesus saves me, it doesn’t matter how I live. John Wesley (1703-91) called this false doctrine antinomianism, or lawlessness. He saw it as the most widespread and deadly error of his day. Yet the writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus died in order for us to live transformed lives:

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Hebrews 13:12, NRSV).

In this verse, to sanctify is to purify. God longs to make us like Jesus, to clean us up! Nina Gunter insists: “Grace does not leave us where it found us.” This is exactly the opposite of the slogans we hear, such as “I’m only human” or “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” You may have been a sinner, but that was then, this is now (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Now, we are followers of Jesus Christ, reconciled to God, adopted into God’s family! Jesus can change us; he can save us from our sin, or he is no Savior at all.

Church leaders are wringing their hands, wondering what they can do to make the church grow again. May I suggest sinning Christianity is the problem? Until we get to the place where we are sick of our sin and desperate for God’s holy love to fill us, we will have nothing of value to offer to people who look on and see only the same filth and absence of love that they can find 24/7 elsewhere.  If the church has a PR problem, it’s only because it has a sin problem. How can we offer deliverance if we ourselves are still enchained?

Heaven isn’t enough. Jesus died for more than to take us to heaven. He died so that as his true followers we can live new lives, transformed lives, lives characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit, spilling over with God’s holy love right here on earth. May the Lord renew His church both individually and corporately!

—————

Image credits

Staircase to heaven: picturesofheaven.net

Houston: wingclips.com

 

Deep and wide: Marrying discipleship and evangelism

As a child, I used to sing a course in children’s church. It had some fun motions that went along with it:

Deep and wide,

Deep and wide

There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.

Don’t get hung up on the meaning of the words. I’m not sure what the “fountain” was, perhaps a reference to William Cowper’s creepy lyric: “There is fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins.”

Yet as ironically shallow as “Deep and Wide” seems in retrospect, it’s a good description of what the church ought to be. If we’re only “wide” (and not deep), people will go elsewhere. On the other hand, if we’re only “deep” (and not wide), we may end up as the church of “us four and no more,” as if being small in number somehow makes us holier. The challenge is to be good at both, inviting people in and taking them to the next level in their walk with Christ.

Continue reading